The evening of Henry Lee Hunt’s execution, I attended a performance of Minstrel Show: The Lynching of William Brown at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham. The true story of a 1919 mob murder in Omaha, Neb., Minstrel Show bore an eerie resemblance to the real-time drama being played out in Raleigh, which if turned into a play someday might best be titled Dog and Pony Show: The Execution of Henry Lee Hunt.
To be sure, the deaths of Brown and Hunt were more different than similar. Brown, a black man dragged from his jail cell by an enraged rabble and killed for allegedly molesting a white woman, met his fate within hours of his arrest. Hunt, a Lumbee Indian accused of murdering two people in Robeson County, had a jury trial and the counsel of numerous lawyers while his appeals dragged through the courts for 18 years. Omaha police and public officials tried to stop Brown’s lynching, whereas the State of North Carolina orchestrated Hunt’s demise. And while Brown died a random, unscheduled death by bullets, beating and burning, Hunt was systematically killed by lethal injection, at the appointed hour.
But in the final analysis, Brown and Hunt were brothers of the flesh in one key respect: Neither one ever really had a chance.
I helped Hunt’s defense team prepare and distribute information about the case to the public. In order to make sure the facts were in order and could not be impeached, I had to read much of the voluminous record. Looking at the trial transcripts, motions, affidavits and court rulings, it quickly became apparent that the case against Hunt was marred by deep, irreparable problems that at the very least raised doubts about his guilt. It was also obvious that if Hunt went to trial today with all the evidence on the table and a competent lawyer to represent him, jurors would be hardpressed to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt–even if they came from the snakepit known as Robeson County.
Individual bits of evidence were compelling enough. Police initially arrested another man, who flunked a lie-detector test and then confessed to the first murder, providing details that only someone involved would have known. Hunt, in contrast, has passed two polygraph tests administered by respected expert Stan Fulmer, who can hardly be dismissed as a shill for the defense. “Throughout my life I have been a proponent of the death penalty and have been very pro-law enforcement,” Fulmer said for the record, then delivered his very unambiguous analysis: “Mr. Hunt is innocent. Mr. Hunt did not commit these murders.”
No physical evidence connected Hunt to either crime. The testimony of the only alleged eyewitness, an admitted participant in one of the killings, was shredded by an expert who clearly explained why the narrative was impossible. Other witness testimony suspiciously changed over time to conform to the prosecution’s version of the facts. Snitches facing legal trouble of their own received light sentences in exchange for their testimony. The prosecutor knowingly misrepresented and withheld important evidence at trial. Both the Lumberton Police Department and the State Bureau of Investigation destroyed case files, including interviews with key witnesses, that may have benefited Hunt.
The list of dubious elements extends well beyond those examples. The totality of the record is more than enough to shake one’s faith in North Carolina’s system of capital punishment, as Fulmer now says his faith has been shaken.
No one on the law enforcement side ever deigned to respond to the particulars raised by the defense, most of which were developed after Hunt’s conviction. Instead, state mouthpieces simply noted that a jury had convicted Hunt and the courts had found nothing worthy of a new trial, as though that were sufficient to explain away the destruction of evidence, prosecutorial misconduct and other misdeeds. That the jury lacked crucial information was irrelevant, they said; that judges simply declared the new evidence to be immaterial or unbelievable was good enough. When they did address a specific issue, such as an affidavit from a killer admitting guilt, naming his brother as a perpetrator and absolving Hunt, they rejected it as “suspicious” without elaboration.
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt never deviated from his soundbite that the case against Hunt was “overwhelming.” The press dutifully parroted Britt’s comments without challenge and laid out only superficial fragments of the defense’s position from day to day, giving the misimpression that the flaws in the case were artificial constructs floated by the defense as stall tactics. The treatment of Hunt by reporters stood in stark contrast to that accorded Alan Gell, whose case was so thoroughly dissected by News & Observer reporter Joe Neff and who, perhaps not coincidentally, won a new trial.
In the ongoing debate over a moratorium, Gov. Easley has stated that he sees no need to put a hold on executions. If the system occasionally permits an injustice to occur, he said, there’s always the clemency process to guarantee that no one falls through the cracks. Easley looks at every case exhaustively, or so he has told reporters; as the final arbiter, he can ensure that justice will be done.
Well, God must be a vengeful God, or at least the character played by Easley in Dog and Pony Show.
By letting Hunt die, Easley made several ringing endorsements. First and foremost, the destruction of evidence, prosecutorial misconduct and the other procedural misdeeds that stained Hunt’s case are OK by him. The governor is well aware that Britt was previously cited for withholding evidence in the case of Curtis Womble that resulted in his death sentence being vacated. He knows that prosecutors in the office of Attorney General Roy Cooper have been similarly exposed. If he actually read the clemency petition, he also knows that the Lumberton Police Department destroyed a box of Hunt’s case records contrary to department policy, just after Hunt’s appeals lawyers had requested to see them. The only interpretation of his action is that by Easley’s standards, cops and prosecutors can cheat to get a guy they think is guilty.
Actually, there is another interpretation: The clemency process is completely arbitrary. Thus Easley rightly granted clemency to Charlie Alston, whose case hinged on a single piece of purportedly lost evidence, fingernail scrapings from the victim, that might have been DNA tested and thus might have shed doubt on his guilt. The admitted destruction of evidence in Hunt’s case alone matches Alston’s on the doubt scale. The governor’s only comment on Hunt–“I find no convincing reason to grant clemency and overturn the unanimous jury verdicts affirmed by the state and federal courts”–could just as easily have applied to Alston.
One more theory: the political winds blew the wrong way for Henry Lee Hunt. Naturally, Easley would cry foul if accused of playing politics with people’s lives, just as politicians and judges always say politics had nothing to do with their decisions. Easley seemed to have the political cover necessary to grant clemency, with a host of diverse voices calling for moratorium, and an Innocence Commission allegedly formed to examine just such cases, and editorials from papers across the state strongly urging mercy. On the other hand, sources say the pressure from Robeson County, brought by folks close to Easley’s prosecutorial roots, was intense and may have tipped the balance. In the final analysis, it’s the only explanation that makes any sense.
Whatever his motive, by setting the bar higher than possible innocence, it’s hard to see how Easley can grant clemency to anyone at this point without further exposing himself as a capricious fraud. How can one or two unanswered questions in a given case render it unworthy of the death penalty if an entire litany do not?
Easley could put these concerns to rest by explaining his decision beyond the one-line executioner’s song he offered in denying clemency to Hunt. But that will never happen, because he has nothing to gain by sticking his toes in those piranha-filled waters. Besides, the only gesture required of the Roman emperors in the Coliseum was the pointing of a thumb.
Contact Burtman at burtman@indyweek. com