Wake County prosecutors still seek death sentences, but juries haven’t handed one down in a decade

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A life sentence for the killer in a Fuquay-Varina double murder means Wake County has now had nine capital murder convictions without a death sentence.

Donovan Jevonte Richardson avoided becoming North Carolina’s 144th person on death row. A Wake County jury convicted the 24-year-old Richardson on Friday of the July 2014 murders of 74-year-old Arthur Lee Brown and 66-year-old David Eugene McKoy. The fatal shootings took place during a burglary of Brown’s home.

“This was a terrible case. Two men who’d worked hard their whole life, who loved their families, who were brutally murdered in their own beds,” Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said.

“We are glad to have the case behind us for the sake of the victim’s families, and glad that Mr. Richardson will spend the rest of his life in prison.”

It was not, however, the sentence sought by Freeman and the Brown and McKoy families. Prosecutors argued Richardson should receive the death penalty.

North Carolina’s most recent execution was August 18, 2006, when Samuel Flippen died from lethal injection for the 1994 murder of his two-year-old stepdaughter, Britnie, in Forsyth County. Since Flippen’s execution, Wake County juries have sentenced only one person to death row. Byron Waring received his death sentence in July 2007.

The nine Wake County men convicted of capital murder since 2008 are all serving life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“We’re seeing this trend away from the death penalty. What’s unusual about Wake County is that the district attorney’s office persists in year after year … bringing a capital case to trial, and that is unlike other counties in North Carolina,” said Gretchen Engel, the executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

“There are only four or five capital trials every year, and Wake County is every year among that group, out of 100 counties. There really is an outlier there,” Engel said.

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“You see every indicator, whether it’s new death sentences returned by jurors, or executions carried out, that you see North Carolina, like other states, is moving away from the death penalty.”

The Center for Death Penalty Litigation advocates against the punishment and also represents many of the state’s death row inmates in their appeals. Since Flippen’s execution, more than 20 people have gotten off of death row through resentencing, retrials, and even release in a couple of cases involving exoneration. Seventeen death row inmates have died in prison since August 2006, including one by suicide.

Seven states have banned the death penalty in the years since North Carolina’s last execution, bringing to 19 the total number of states without capital punishment. Engel said it will take time, but she can envision a day when North Carolina prohibits the practice.

“I think the juries, citizens through juries, have spoken. It’s clear that North Carolina is moving away from the death penalty,” she said.

“The question is when does the legislature catch up with that judgement of our elected DA’s and our jurors. That’s going to take a little time. Elections matter and this is one of those issues that will change with the political climate.”

Engel said she hopes Freeman and other Wake County prosecutors will move away from asking juries to consider capital punishment. She said it will save time, money, and staff efforts which can be concentrated elsewhere.

The Wake County District Attorney concedes that prosecuting capital cases requires more than simply seeking life imprisonment.

“Certainly it’s not lost on us the amount of resources that go into trying these cases. We always are in close communication and working with the family of victims to try and bring some closure for them in a case,” Freeman said.

“We continue to evaluate these cases one and one, and there are times when the facts of the case are so egregious, so terrible, that we believe it’s appropriate for the community to make the decision through the jury process.”

Freeman said fewer than one percent of murder cases are prosecuted as capital cases. There are a couple such cases currently pending prosecution in Wake County. District attorney’s investigators regularly review and reevaluate information in other cases, but Freeman said her staff tries to make capital determinations early on.

She will continue to pursue capital punishment in cases which qualify as the worst of the worst, as long as the law allows, she said.

“The burden really is on us to continue to look at each case individually, and to try and weigh out what are we learning from these last nine cases. What does this tell us about what our community expectation is,” Freeman said.

“I think as long as the death penalty is on the books, I think it’s very hard for any one prosecutor to come out and say I’m never going to consider it. I think that would be not really fulfilling what our obligation is,” she said.

“At the same time, I also think we have to work hard to not be tone-deaf to what may be a developing and demonstrated intent of our community. We try and walk that fine line.”

Alabama is set to execute one of its longest serving inmates Thursday evening. Vernon Madison killed Mobile Police Corporal Julius Schulte, on April 18, 1985.

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