More excerpts from the Center on Public Integrity: June 26, 2003
The Center's study of criminal appeals from 1970 to the present revealed 120 North Carolina cases in which the defendant alleged prosecutorial error or misconduct. In 14, judges ruled a prosecutor's conduct prejudiced the defendant and reversed or remanded the conviction, sentence or indictment. In six, a dissenting judge or judges thought the prosecutor's conduct prejudiced the defendant. Of all the defendants who alleged error or misconduct, two later proved their innocence. In 35 cases, defendants pointed to Biblical references made by prosecutors as grounds for reversal. The Supreme Court found Biblical references to be prejudicial in only two of the cases.
Of the cases in which judges ruled a prosecutor's conduct prejudiced the defendant, eleven involved improper trial arguments and behavior, two involved the prosecution withholding evidence from the defense and one involved prosecutorial vindictiveness.
Joe Freeman Britt made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the "world's deadliest prosecutor" after he won 44 death penalty convictions during the 15 years he served as Robeson County's District Attorney. What the record book does not mention is how he won.
The Supreme Court of North Carolina has scrutinized Britt's conduct in at least 10 of his death penalty convictions. In two, the Supreme Court held his trial tactics and arguments were so prejudicial that the death sentence could not stand. In another two, Supreme Court judges disagreed with the majority and thought Britt's conduct warranted reversing the defendant's death sentence.
In a 1982 murder trial, a prosecutor "argued in effect that the powers of public officials, including the police, prosecutors and judges are ordained by God as his representatives on earth and that to resist these powers is to resist God."
In December 1995, Phyllis Cherry, a former Bertie County prosecutor, urged the jury to sentence Charles Phillips Bond to death, even though he didn't actually commit the murder. He wasn't even at the crime scene. "Lynch mob activity has always been condemned by the Good Book, but justice under the law has always been upheld and supported by the Good Book," Cherry said to the jury. They sentenced Bond to death.
The jury sentenced James Alan Gell to death. The prosecutors convinced the jury that Gell and an accomplice shot and killed a man on April 3, 1995. April 3 was the only day Gell could have committed the murder—he was out of town on April 4 and 5, and in jail on car-theft charges from April 6 until the discovery of the victim's body. Prosecutors Hoke and Graves didn't disclose that 17 witnesses had seen the victim alive between April 6 and April 10. The state also withheld a secret tape recording of a phone call between two witnesses that showed they were fabricating their version of events. Also, forensic evidence indicated that Gell was in jail the day the actual murder occurred.