Bucking National Trends, Raleigh DA Lorrin Freeman Seeks To Execute The Mentally Ill
While polling and jury verdicts show capital punishment losing support, Wake County’s “outlier” D.A. persists pursuit of death.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that capital punishment should be reserved for those with “extreme culpability,” and the American public agrees. New polling shows overwhelming bipartisan opposition to the death penalty for people with a wide range of impairments, including mental illness and intellectual disabilities.
Across the country and throughout North Carolina, prosecutors and other officials have joined this consensus as capital punishment has become nearly extinct. But in progressive Wake County, where juries have consistently rebuffed prosecutors and returned life sentences in capital cases, Democratic District Attorney Lorrin Freeman persists not only in seeking death, but doing so against people with extreme mental illness.
In one case, Freeman asked a judge to forcibly medicate someone deemed unfit for trial in order to “restore” his competency so she could kill him.
Freeman has also taken no action to remove the threat of execution for mentally ill and otherwise impaired people currently sitting on Wake County’s death row. In one non-capital murder case, Freeman even fought to defend the conviction of a now-exonerated man whose mental illness was directly linked to a coerced false confession, and who languished in prison for decades before a court ordered him released.
In August 2015, Kendrick Gregory, a young Black man in Raleigh, North Carolina, was in the throes of severe mental illness. He had been hospitalized at least 20 times over the previous eight months, repeatedly checking himself into emergency rooms and reporting symptoms of psychosis, including hearing voices saying that he should hurt himself.
Despite Gregory’s desperate attempt to get help, and a schizophrenia diagnosis, he was released from inpatient care and a doctor refused to refill his psychiatric medications. A month later, Gregory, unmedicated and in the middle of a psychotic break, committed a horrific one-day crime spree, which included shooting-to-death Thomas Durand, a 64 year-old Raleigh man.
Following his arrest, Gregory’s mental health continued to deteriorate—he refused to bathe and gave only one word answers to questions from his lawyers. At multiple points prior to his murder conviction, doctors and judges found that Gregory was incompetent to stand trial.
This sort of impairment that has prompted prosecutors across the country to stop seeking the death penalty, and last year Republican Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed the nation’s first state law barring capital punishment against people with severe mental illness. The American public also supports that approach. New Raleigh Watch polling shows that voters of both parties overwhelmingly oppose capital punishment for people with a diagnosed mental illness (60% of voters oppose, including 55% of Republicans), intellectual disabilities (59% of voters oppose, including 58% of Republicans), and traumatic brain injuries (63% of voters oppose, including 59% of Republicans).
Given the general progressive politics of Wake County, one might think that its elected prosecutor, a Democrat, would share that view.
But meet District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.
Bucking both local and national consensus, Freeman insisted for years that Gregory should die for his crimes. When a judge in 2018 found that Gregory was too ill to face trial, Freeman and her prosecutors asked the judge to forcibly medicate Gregory and “restore” his competency so that she could kill him.
Gregory avoided a capital trial only after pandemic-related trial delays and backlogs led Freeman in May 2021—nearly six years after Gregory’s arrest—to relent and withdraw her notice to seek death. Gregory was eventually sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Freeman’s aggressive pursuit of death in Gregory’s case was not an aberration. Since taking office in 2015, Freeman has sought death sentences more than any other prosecutor in North Carolina, emerging as one of the dwindling few public officials in America still grasping for the death penalty as it slides toward obsolescence. In a nation of more than 330 million people, 2021 was the seventh consecutive year with fewer than 50 death sentences, down from a peak of 315 in 1996. Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center and a leading expert on capital punishment, called Freeman an “outlier” who “appears to be out of touch with public opinion and whose practices run counter to local, state, and national trends.”
Those trends include Wake County juries consistently rejecting death sentences in capital cases, and a growing national consensus that capital punishment, even if theoretically valid, should never be used against people with certain vulnerabilities or impairments. The U.S. Supreme Court has said the same thing. It revived the death penalty only for the “worst of the worst”—those offenders who not only commit the most serious crimes, but “whose extreme culpability makes them the most deserving of execution.” Then the Court issued rulings specifically prohibiting capital punishment against children and people with intellectual disabilities. Someone like Gregory may have even more limited function than a typical teenager or disabled person who could never receive the death penalty, yet Freeman apparently sees a distinction for impairments related to mental illness.
Freeman continues to not only bring capital cases against those with mental illness, she has taken no action to remove the threat of execution for mentally ill and otherwise impaired people currently sitting on Wake County’s death row. In addition, in one non-capital murder case, Freeman even fought to defend the conviction of a now-exonerated man whose mental illness was directly linked to a coerced false confession, and who languished in prison for more than 35 years before a court ordered him released.
Freeman did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding her death penalty record, and why she has sought death against multiple people with mental illness while also failing to address mental illness on Wake County’s death row.
If juries speak for the community, then Freeman’s own constituents have long disapproved of capital punishment. From 2008 to 2018, Wake County juries rejected death and imposed life sentences in nine consecutive capital cases, with three of those verdicts under Freeman. She acknowledged the trend in 2016, after a jury delivered a life sentence in the case of Travion Smith. “This is the sixth case in a row that we’ve sought the death penalty and not gotten it,” Freeman said, “and I do think at some point we have to step back and say, has the community sent us a message on that?” But Freeman ignored that message, trying four capital cases over the next three years. Only in one, in 2019, did the jury impose death. It was the first Wake County death sentence since 2007.
Elizabeth Hambourger, a lawyer with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation who represents capital defendants in North Carolina, said “it’s clear that the death penalty is not a priority for most people in Wake County.” Freeman is “wasting a lot of resources pursuing an outdated punishment,” she told Raleigh Watch. “The State hasn’t carried out an execution in 15 years, and almost every time Lorrin Freeman has put the question to a jury, that jury has rejected death, usually unanimously.”
Among Freeman’s capital cases, mental illness has been a consistent theme. In addition to Gregory, Freeman’s office in 2019 tried a capital case against Jonathan Sander, a man with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses who had been twice committed to a hospital after doctors described him as delusional and suffering from depression. ” Two days before he shot his business partner and other members of his family to death, a distraught Sander and his wife sought help at a mental health clinic, but were turned away because they could not pay $250 for an assessment. A jury sentenced Sander to life.
Hambourger told Raleigh Watch that what she sees in North Carolina court rooms aligns with the poll results showing that people oppose death sentences when they learn more about the complex reality of individual defendants, including issues involving mental health. “What I’ve seen is that once you present jurors — even jurors who support the death penalty — once you give them information about someone’s life, their struggles, the good things they’ve done, along with the bad, it’s very hard for most jurors to then see that person as a monster, even if they’ve caused enormous harm.”
North Carolina’s death row is marked by mental illness, severe and persistent childhood trauma, intellectual limitations, and people enduring other impairments. “I think most people imagine that the people on death row are hardened criminals and psychopaths,” Hambourger told Raleigh Watch. “But that’s not the men and women I’ve met. They’re all people who’ve had very hard lives. They’ve survived trauma, mental illness, and addiction. And they’ve made choices they regret, like we all have.”
Yet Freeman has not used her discretion to revisit old convictions and death sentences tainted by mental health concerns. Prosecutorial discretion extends beyond charging decisions and sentencing recommendations, and includes securing justice in older cases, particularly when new information is discovered or practices change over time, Jonathan Broun, a capital defense lawyer with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, told Raleigh Watch. Even after convictions are final, prosecutors can join motions to re-sentence people and can petition the governor to grant executive commutation and convert death sentences to prison terms.
“Prosecutors always have a duty to do justice,” Broun said, “and when there’s something that comes to their attention to show justice should be done at any point, they have a duty not to just defend a conviction or sentence, but to come forward [and] to do the right thing.” Among factors they should consider, he said, is our contemporary understanding of mental health and cognitive science—including how trauma affects behavior and judgment—and as our knowledge “begins to change and develop, and shows why a person shouldn't be on a death row, [prosecutors] have an obligation” to seek commutation.
Carlette Parker is one of 11 people from Wake County on death row. She was just five years old when her mother died and the sexual abuse began. Without her mother around, Parker was repeatedly raped and assaulted by several paternal uncles, a pattern of abuse that lasted into her teenage years. At least one uncle combined the abuse with threats of further harm if she ever told anyone. Multiple family members witnessed the abuse, and would later recount how it changed Parker from a happy child into one who would cry “at the drop of a hat,” constantly worried that her family did not love her. As an adult, Parker suffered from flashbacks, nightmares, and panic attacks stemming from the abuse.
A psychiatrist later found that Parker “was suffering from depression, schizoid personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from chronic sexual abuse by multiple perpetrators.” The overall “effects of Ms. Parker’s early childhood trauma,” the psychiatrist found, “are pervasive and chronic.” In addition to these mental health- and trauma-related impairments, Parker has “borderline intellectual functioning” with an IQ of 77, placing her in the lowest 6% of the population.
In 1999, a jury convicted Parker of murder for the death of an elderly woman. The precise circumstances of the woman’s death were never clear, and the evidence used to convict Parker was entirely circumstantial. Prosecutors argued that Parker had asked for a loan from the woman and, after she refused, stole money from the woman’s checking account before drowning her in a bathtub. Prosecutors asked for the death penalty (invoking racially-coded language by consistently describing Parker as a heavy-set Black woman and contrasting her with the small frailty of her white victim), and today Parker is the only woman on Wake County’s death row.
There are other examples. At the sentencing phase of William Morganherring’s capital trial in 1995, a defense expert said of Morganherring’s childhood: Altogether, “it pretty much . . . had every conceivable problem that you can imagine from the earliest time and here when I say every conceivable problem, I’m including violence, abusive behaviors in all directions.”
Morganherring, forced in and out of foster care throughout childhood, was shaped by a toxic environment plagued by sexual and physical abuse, drug addiction, and infidelity. He suffered daily abuse at the hands of his mother (who once beat him with a baseball bat) and the numerous men who came in and out of the home. He also witnessed men beat his mother and tried to protect her. When Morganherring was four, his mother set fire to their home in an attempt to escape an abusive boyfriend, ultimately receiving a two-year prison sentence for “unlawful burning of a dwelling house.” Later, when Morganherring was seven, she shot the man to death and Morganherring had to testify at her trial.
After his mother remarried, Morganherring’s stepfather was shot in the back by police and left paralyzed. Soon after, his mother, despondent and unable to care for her children, died by suicide.
Then in 1994, Morganherring murdered two women over the course of three days, reported the murders to the police, and turned himself in. He’s been on Wake County’s death row since 1995.
The immediate question for people like Parker and Morganherring is whether, despite all the trauma and illness that has shaped their lives, the state should execute them for the harm they have caused, or if justice demands a lesser punishment.
But for James Blackmon, a man wrongfully convicted of murder in 1988, the question was whether an innocent man would spend the rest of his life in prison.
Blackmon had been convicted for the 1979 stabbing death of a Raleigh college student. After the murder, police targeted Blackmon only because an anonymous source said that a patient at the state psychiatric hospital had talked about killing people, including the murder at St. Augustine’s College. The source could not name the patient, but Blackmon fit a physical description.
When Blackmon met with police, he suffered from schizoaffective disorder, which, his lawyers explained, “combines the psychotic symptoms of schizophrenia with the mania of a person with bipolar disorder,” and he had severely limited intellectual functioning, with an IQ as low as 69. He had cycled in and out of prison, psychiatric hospitals, and reform school since age 11.
Over several interrogations, Blackmon, sometimes wearing a Superman cape, gave a series of delusional and nonsensical statements. He compared himself to Dracula. He said that he was telepathic, with the ability to control people’s minds and actions. Sometimes he started to sing or utter, as the verbatim transcript provides, “mumbo jumbo.” He said that he had killed lots of people. He said that he had killed no one. He said that he could cause hurricanes and earthquakes. As he rambled, police interrogators steered him back toward the crime, and once took him to visit the murder scene.
When Blackmon did discuss the crime, he got many details incorrect (including his description of the victim and how she was killed), and he never provided new information. He was simply repeating things that the police had already told him. Eventually, the police got Blackmon to say something that sounded like a confession: “I — either he cut her in the woods somewhere where he had her at or either up in that building,” referring in the second person to the “bad James Blackmon.”
After making these statements—the only evidence linking Blackmon to the crime—he pleaded guilty to second degree murder.
More than 35 years later, in 2018, Blackmon had a hearing before the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. There, one expert testified that, “it’s clear from looking at the . . . transcripts of those tape-recorded interviews that he told the detectives lots of information that might be factually true, but he told them lots and lots of information that was just flagrantly delusional, just craziness.” Another expert said that, even setting the substance of Blackmon’s statements aside, both his mental illness and intellectual disability were risk factors for a false confession.
Still, District Attorney Lorrin Freeman defended Blackmon’s conviction and the police who worked his case, and opposed his release.
Even after the commission voted unanimously that there was sufficient evidence of innocence to merit judicial review, Freeman continued to defend Blackmon’s conviction in front of a three-judge panel. As for the problematic confession and the expert testimony that Blackmon’s statements were unreliable, Freeman argued in a brief that no further review was needed because courts back in 1987 and 1989 ruled that the statements were admissible.
Jonathan Broun, the Prisoner Legal Services lawyer, represented Blackmon. “By the time [his] case got to the three judge panel it should have been obvious he had spent over 35 years incarcerated for a crime he had absolutely nothing to do with,” Broun told Raleigh Watch. “For anyone to think otherwise because his mental illness allowed police officers to lead him into a confession just shows a complete lack of understanding of and compassion for people with mental illness.”
Over Freeman’s objection, the court declared Blackmon innocent on August 22, 2019 and he was released from prison. In 2019, Blackmon was awarded $750,000 in state compensation.
Broun described Freeman’s approach to harsh punishment as lagging behind community norms and stuck in a past that no longer exists. He said that she is “caught where we were 20 or 30 years ago, when offering pleas [to life without the possibility of parole] in cases would be seen as progressive, and she probably sees herself that way, but nationally and in North Carolina, Freeman has failed to move with the times.”