Death Row is F'd Up
F'd Up · 79 minutes ·

Death Row is F'd Up

Death Row is F’d Up 


Written by Brandi Abbott

A truck driver named Allen Ray Jenkins was found murdered in his home on April 14th 1995. He had been shot at close range with his own shotgun. Two teenage girls admitted to being in his home at the time of his murder and claimed that a man named James Alan Gell, who goes by Alan, was the murderer. The SBI Special Agent Dwight Ransom and the Chief of Police locked on to Alan pretty immediately. Witness claimed to have seen Jenkins alive after the 3rd of April, but the police needed him to have been killed on the third for reasons that will be covered in a bit, so they pretty much coerced the witnesses into changing their statements to say they were unsure of when they last saw him alive. The police arrested Alan on August 1st 1995, and he was charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, armed robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery. The girls testified at his trial saying that he had committed the murder, and Alan was convicted and sentenced to the death penalty. Because Alan wasn’t well off financially and had received the death penalty, the state had to supply him with two public defenders. Also, a law was enacted where they had to be supplied with the entire case file, whereas that wasn’t true for pre-convictions. Defense attorneys James Comey and Mary Pollard began working Alan’s case in 2002 and found the original witness statements wherein the witnesses said they had seen Jenkins alive after April 3rd which raised a lot of red flags. They brought in Marilyn Miller to help with this case and she went to the crime scene and examined the evidence and photographs from the crime scene. The bloodstain patterns were initially analyzed by an SBI Special Agent named Dennis Honeycut who was NOT a bloodstain pattern analyst. If he had been trained in bloodstained pattern analysis, like Marilyn, he would have been able to tell that the blood stain patterns did not match up with the girls’ story about where Alan and Jenkins had been standing. They changed their story six different times, getting closer and closer to what the police needed each time. The attorneys also called a professor of entomology who was able to determine that based on the maggots in Jenkins’ body, he died on April 8th, 9th, or 10th, but definitely not April 3rd. The reason the April 3rd date was so important to the investigators was because Alan had ironclad alibis for the 4th ‘til when Jenkins’ body was found. In 2002, Alan’s conviction was vacated and he had to be retried in the murder of Alan Ray Jenkins. Alan’s defense team at the retrial included Mary and James, but also Joe Cheshire and Brad Bannon who were Kirk Turner’s defense attorneys. After another two years, Alan was acquitted of all charges on February 18th, 2004.

The death penalty has been around at least since 18th century BC. King Hammurabi had about 25 different crimes that were punishable by death, and 5th century BC Rome would carry out the death penalty by crucifixion, drowning, beating, burning alive, or impalement. England in 16th century AD incorporated more methods including hangings, beheadings, burning at the stake, and drawing and quartering. Crimes punishable by death included: treason, not confessing to a crime, and more. The first known execution in North Carolina was a Native American man in 1726, likely in the form of a public hanging. Public hangings were treated more like a party than an execution and entire families would travel to attend, possibly with a small feast prepared. By 1910, the State of NC took charge of executions, whereas before, they were handled locally. There seemed to be a need for consistency and a more humane method, so the state decided that the electric chair would be less painful than hangings, and then in the 1930s replaced the electric chair with the gas chamber. In 1972, the US Supreme Court ruled the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment and ruled that the jury would be able to use their discretion when imposing the death penalty. North Carolina enacted a law in response that certain crimes would be mandatory for certain crimes - which led to 120 condemned inmates. Four years after that, the US Supreme Court overturned the mandatory death penalty laws and those 120 condemned inmates had their sentences vacated, commuted, or were re-sentenced to life in prison. By 1977 in NC, the death penalty was reintroduced for first-degree murder. The 80s and 90s were a time recognized as “tough on crime” across the entire US and harsher punishments were handed out more freely. Between the years of 1984 and 2006, 43 people were executed in North Carolina. On October 29th, 1988, North Carolina officially made lethal injection the soul method of execution. 

Alan Gell’s removal from death row and ultimate acquittal warranted a review of how death penalty cases were pursued by law enforcement. They should have taken the death penalty off of the table until they could review what happened in Alan’s case. There have been nine people acquitted from death row in North Carolina, and the chances are high there are still innocent people on death row in that state today. In 2003, Senator Eleanor Kinnaird proposed a bill to create a two year study on capital sentencing along the economic, geographical, and racial lines but the bill didn’t make it past the NC House of Representatives. 

On August 18th, 2006, Samuel Flippen was the last person to be executed in North Carolina, and since then there has been a hiatus on executions in the state for various reasons. In 2014, a Wake County Superior Court Judge named Donald Stevens blocked the use of lethal injection in the state, finding that method to be cruel and unusual. This means that people who are still on death row in North Carolina, most of which have been there since the 90s, get to spend every day wondering whether or not the state will eventually kill them. 

Alan Gell spent nine years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, six of which were spent on death row. F’d Up wanted to try and understand what those six years looked like. They went to the website of The Department of Safety to see how they describe death row. According to the website, there are two facilities, one for men and one for women and each one provides a day room. Inmates can spend their time in the day room or their cells, all of which are all single cells. Each cell includes a bed, a sink, a toilet, and a wall mounted writing desk. The day room includes tables, a TV, and showers at the end of it. Two days a week inmates can go for a supervised jog or play basketball. All in all, sounding like a summer camp so far. The website warns, that if a death row inmate violates prison regulations, they may be placed in a cell block segregated from death row. However, a report by the ACLU “Called a Death Before Dying” reports that inmates are locked in their cells for 22-24 hours a day with little human contact, lack of natural light, and severe constraints on visitation. The Center on Death Penalty Litigation is a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to death row inmates.  Gretchen Engle, their executive director who’s been with the center since 1992, described being on death row as a harsher punishment than serving a life sentence. She told NC’s public radio that work and education opportunities are limited, inmates can only talk to lawyers or loved ones on the phone or through protective glass, and that it’s more isolating for women as there are only three there. Inmates spend their days waiting for their sentences to be reduced or to be executed. All of this can have extremely adverse affects on mental and physical health and there are very few resources provided to combat these affects. Death Row is populated with living breathing human beings, a lot of which committed the same or similar crimes as people who are NOT on death row. 

Advocates for the death penalty claim that it’s an effective deterrent for heinous crimes - which is untrue. It’s also used as a bargaining tool by law enforcement and prosecutors. The death penalty as a bargaining tool was examined in a study, which says that because prosecutors have the ability to determine how someone is charged, they often choose first-degree murder as it allows for the death penalty, Apparently, all a prosecutor has to do is go before a judge and show that there are aggravating factors present. The study reveals that people who have spent months in jail under the possibility of being tried capitally, are more likely to plead guilty in hopes to avoid the death penalty. The study states that while death sentences have decreased in North Carolina, capital charges have not. Also according to the study, there has been at least one wrongful capital prosecution in North Carolina every year since 1987. This study showed that prosecutors are charging the maximum penalty for negotiating in their weakest cases. Prosecutors also have complete immunity from misconduct and face no repercussions or accountability. The study learned that the state spent nearly 2.4 million dollars in defense costs to pursue these failed capital cases. Since 2006, 16 convicted murderers have been sent to a death row that isn’t executing people. The state had made some reforms and recognized the impact of mental illness, coerced confessions, and incompetent public defenders. Death Row supporters, however, are critical of the delays and want the executions to happen. Some are obviously eager for the state to begin killing human beings again. Ken Honeycutt is a former prosecutor who use to celebrate new death row convictions by gifting his assistant prosecutors with lapel pins shaped like nooses. 

Friendships are developed by people on death row, as these people are who you spend your days with, and you have a big thing in common: You’re facing certain death. Alan Gell formed a close friendship with a man named Desmond Keith Carter. Alan believed that Desmond’s case warranted another look and begged his attorneys to help his buddy when Alan was taken off of death row. This was before the SBI Crime Lab audit, and while Alan’s case was not listed on there, Desmond’s was. Duane Deaver had been the analyst in Desmond’s case, and according to the audit, his testing confirmed the presence of blood despite a negative result. Desmond confessed to the crime. It’s completely possible that Desmond’s confession was coerced using this blood “evidence”, but it’s also possible that it wasn’t, as there’s no way to know for sure. Desmond’s attorneys weren’t experienced in capital cases. Priya says she personally believes Alan’s assessment of the situation and that Desmond’s case deserves to be looked into. She says that if we depend on jailhouse informants for negative testimonies, why can’t we depend on them for positive testimonies as well?

There were a lot of people who believed in the importance of getting Desmond off death row including the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty who wrote a public plea for his life that examined his upbringing and substance abuse. Desmond may have been self medicating due to coming from a broken home, and became addicted to alcohol and drugs. His grandmother tried to get him help, but he was rejected due to lack of health insurance. A couple of weeks after this is when he may have ended up in his alleged victims home, though it’s unclear if there is evidence linking him to the victim. On that day he had been drinking, smoking crack, and using tranquilizers, and allegedly went to the victims home seeking money for more drugs. The plea for his life says the death penalty won’t stop the cycle of violence linked to poverty and oppression because it fails to address the roots of the crisis. Desmond also didn’t have the money for an attorney and was appointed one named Doug Hux who had previously reprimanded by the state bar. The plea states that capital defenders are the ones most often reprimanded. The ACLU published a fact sheet called “Race and the Death Penalty” that said that impoverished people who go through the death penalty are regularly represented by ineffective council who are underpaid and overworked which affects people of color the most. The plea references a 2001 study conducted by the University of North Carolina that illustrates the racial divide between both the race of the defendants and the race of the victims. Of the people on death row, 82% of them had cases involving white victims. Race also comes into play with sentencing. Desmond was a black man who was convicted of killing a white woman. Black people represent about 20% of people in North Carolina, but there are 78 black people on death row, 52 white people, and others who are Native American or identified as “other”. The numbers are disproportionate and do not mean that black people commit more crimes, what they mean is that the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Priya says that one step towards that is unbiased science.

People started seeing the giant problem with racial bias in the criminal justice system, and with the help of Darryl Hunt, the Racial Justice Act was enacted in August of 2009 that allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentence if they believed it was impacted by racial bias. This also covered people being currently tried. They can show evidence demonstrating that race was a factor in their case during sentencing. This can be done in three ways: evidence that the death penalty was sought or imposed more frequently in the case of one race more than others, evidence that the death penalty was sought or imposed more frequently on behalf of victims of one race more than others, or evidence that race was a significant factor in decisions to exercise peremptory strikes during jury selection. You may have thought that if you were tried it would be by a jury of your peers, however the 6th amendment only refers to a person getting an impartial jury, but nothing about them being your peers. White men used to be the only people allowed to serve on juries – it’s still kind of that way today. 

In 2010, two associates professors of law at Michigan State University did a study on racial bias in jury selection in North Carolina. They looked at a number of factors in the jury selection progress and found that prosecutors excused eligible black members as jurors at a significantly higher rate than other races and that this was even higher in cases involving black defendants. At that time in North Carolina, of the 160 people on death row, 31 of them had all white juries at their sentencing and 38 had predominately white. North Carolina is one of the few states who don’t pay their jurors for jury duty. Some employers allow you to use sick time or vacation time, but that’s not always an option. Judges will often excuse a person from jury duty if it’s going to be a significant financial burden, but often those that are excused are people of color in poverty. These are usually the people that a defendant needs on their jury, and this could be fixed by the judged ordering employers to pay or it becoming federal law to do so. 

In December of 2012, three defendants successively appealed their sentences under the Racial Justice Act and got their sentences reduced to life without parole. The case was appealed by the state and was overturned, but in 2018, the case was appealed again and their sentences were reduced again. When their cases were heard in 2018, they were reheard retroactively because some white Republicans worked to rewrite, then successfully repeal, the Racial Justice Act.

One of the seven people listed in the audit that had been sentenced to death row, Patricia Jennings, was resentenced after the report was released and moved from death row to general population after 23 years. All of the usual things an exonerate experiences like continued PTSD, reintegration, depression, struggling with loss of relationships etc… are experienced by a death row exoneree and more. Kim and Saundra spoke with an exoneree who lived with the fear of being strapped in and killed every single day who didn’t want to put his seatbelt on his lawyer’s car because of the trauma associated with being strapped in. Another person Kim and Saundra spoke with compared their experience to an open wound because they never stop hurting and another said they struggle with detachment even seven years after his release. There’s a dehumanization to being placed on death row - Alan Gell says society has to perceive them as monsters because to perceive them as human beings, it wouldn’t be acceptable to execute them. He says “you have to take the humanity away for the death penalty to be okay.” The effort to dehumanize can start during the investigation and might be seen during sentencing.  A man named Greg Wilhoit told Kim and Saundra that during his sentencing the judge said “We will kill you by lethal injection, and if that fails we’ll kill you by electrocution. If the power goes out, we will hang you. If the rope breaks, we will take you out back and shoot you.” 

For a person on death row, there are additional issues that a person in prison may not face. There’s a survivors’ guilt when the people they’ve made friends with get taken away for their execution, or if they’re exonerated for leaving people behind on death row.

Prior to his release, Alan Gell struggled with disillusionment when his lawyer discovered evidence that would eventually exonerate him. A video of one of the teenage girls talking to her boyfriend about the story she was going to fabricate was never given to Alan’s initial defense attorney. On top of this was the witness statements and altered witness statements and the whole time, he’s struggling to understand why none of this was brought up at his trial. Alan was happy when he got out but then was slapped with the reality if it all and wanted to know where the evidence had gone. He said that he believed for years that the girls manipulated the system and the system didn’t know any better. He said he still found it discouraging that he was the 113th mistake. The 113th person exonerated from death row. Once he was free, he had a hard time with women because of the circumstances that got him on death row. He thought he may be betrayed again. However, he reconnected with an old girlfriend after getting out of prison. Jess says perhaps it was easier to trust her because he knew her before and that she was the same woman he had been dating when he cheated on her with one of the two teenagers who accused him of murder. They reconnected and fell in love and got married. Prior to the wedding she joked that he better not cheat on her again because “remember what happened last time” which is super dark but Jess says probably is the type of humor they can share. The couple recently had a baby. 

Priya found an execution procedure manual from the North Carolina Central Prison where men on death row reside. The first step is setting an official date, then the order of the execution, then a week before the execution the prisoner is placed on deathwatch status. One to three days before the execution, the condemned prisoner is transferred to the deathwatch area -where they are closely monitored by an officer. The “execution team members” include a licensed physician, two registered nurses, two paramedics, and seven correctional custody personnel - who the manual describes as executioners. These people are all hired by the warden and must possess a willingness to participate and be of sound mind. There are rehearsals of the execution process around every other month or so. The condemned prisoner will have to have a medical personal identify veins and potential problems with access to them. There are two groups of syringes on hand, one to be used as a backup if the first group doesn’t work. The prisoner will be placed on a gurney and a roll of gauze will be placed into each of the prisoner’s hands - which are then taped to prevent them from trying to stop the execution. The condemned prisoner can give last words after all of the IVs are in place and the warden will call the Secretary of Public Safety to make sure there have been no changes. Post-execution the body will be transferred to the medical examiner’s office who will establish cause of death and arrange for transportation to a funeral home if that’s what the next of kin wants or it will be disposed of by law. Immediately after the execution, the warden will hold a post-execution debriefing with the execution team members to discuss how it went. Priya says that at no point in the manual did she see anything about mental health care for the people who participated in the execution. She says there’s no way that participating in taking another human life wouldn’t have adverse affects. That even in the off chance that they are okay with it and know in their hearts that the person committed an awful crime and feels like they deserve this, what happens if they find out the person was innocent down the road? How would they feel if they had put Alan Gell to death or any of the other death row exonerees?

There were seven people listed in the audit who were on death row or already executed. John Hardy Rose was one of these people and was executed on November 30th, 2001, nine years prior to the audit. A man named Joseph Timothy Keel was executed seven years prior to the audit on November 7th, 2003. Joseph’s attorney was interviewed about his client being on the list and said that that was the problem with the death penalty, that there were no do-overs and that they can’t go back and fix these errors. Patricia Jennings was mentioned earlier in the episode. There’s not a lot known about the remaining names on the report but their presence on it, almost certainly means that true justice wasn’t served. Their names were John Robert Elliott, Terry Lee Ball, and Chris Roseborro. Priya says she would call these seven cases resulting from the SBI’s crimes attempted murder, and three of them, actual murder. Desmond Keith Carter was scheduled to be executed on the day that Alan’s case was vacated. He had begged his lawyers to help Desmond, but at that point there was nothing they could do. On December 10th, 2002, Desmond Keith Carter was executed. 

The fuckery in the SBI Crime Lab resulted in those deaths and more as there are others on the list who died in prison. How did this lab get away for this as long as they did? The scope of the audit was limited to 1987-2003. That was 16 years wherein 230 cases where found, seven of which were death row cases. This is a lot for a crime lab who were accredited by ASCLD LAB. F’d Up will get into them and more on the next episode. 

Comments (0)

You Must Be Logged In To Comment

Similar podcasts

Crime Cats: True Crime

Lady Justice True Crime

True Crime

CATS: A True Crime Podcast

True Crime False Crime

True North True Crime

True Consequences - True Crime

True North True Crime