Ronald Frye Clemency Letter
Executed August 31, 2001
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Honorable Michael F. Easley
Office of the Governor
20300 Mail Service Center
Raleigh, NC 27699-0300
Re: Ronald Frye
Dear Governor Easley:
On behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, we urge you to stay the execution of Ronald Wayne Frye and to commute his death sentence to life imprisonment without parole. Egregiously ineffective assistance of Mr. Frye's counsel throughout the trial merits this extraordinary relief.
As most people on death row, Mr. Frye had struggled to survive and, unable to afford a lawyer, was represented by the court appointed trial counsel Thomas Portwood. The court appointed Mr. Portwood even though it was well known in the local legal community that he was a severe alcoholic. For example, a few years prior to the Frye trial, Mr. Portwood had been involved in a car accident and his blood alcohol level measured 0.436, a near lethal level. Mr. Portwood later admitted to have been drinking 12 shots of rum each night of Mr. Frye's trial. The next two defendants, following Ronnie Frye, to receive a death sentence in North Carolina were also represented by Mr. Portwood. Three years later, he was removed by a judge in the midst of another capital case because he was too drunk to work with his co-counsel. In that case, the defendant was found not guilty.
While it is well known that, in order to provide truly effective representation, defense counsel must devote much energy and remain focused every moment of a capital murder trial, Mr. Portwood clearly failed to fulfill even the most elementary of his duties. For example, he failed to investigate Mr. Frye's background, even though all relevant records and most witnesses were in the very same county. Such investigation would have revealed, for example, that Mr. Frye (along with his brother) was given away by his alcoholic mother in a restaurant to a pair of strangers who whipped the boys with a bullwhip and forced them to whip each other. Beatings happened on average every other day. The abuse was so severe that pictures of the nine-year-old Ronnie Frye were used by the local police chief in child abuse training. Two of the jurors later said that they would not have sentenced Mr. Frye to death if they had known these facts.
Serious questions have been raised regarding the death penalty system in North Carolina. Consider the following cases from the past few years: Alfred Rivera spent 22 months on death row before being found innocent at a second trial; Russell Tucker received a stay of his execution after his lawyer admitted to sabotaging his appeal; Marcus Carter's death sentence was commuted after a judge allowed him to represent himself in a murder case. These examples show that North Carolina's death penalty system is far from perfect.
As a result of such cases, there is strong and growing support for a moratorium on executions in North Carolina so that the fairness of the system can be studied further. A North Carolina legislative commission studying the issue has recommended such a moratorium, leading the House and Senate to consider moratorium legislation. Several local governments, as well as the North Carolina branch of the American Bar Association and other civic and religious organizations, have passed resolutions in favor of a moratorium. Illinois Governor George Ryan already has declared a moratorium on executions in his state based on similar concerns.
The ACLU opposes capital punishment in all cases as a barbarous anachronism and in violation of the Constitution. In this case, the extraordinary relief of clemency is particularly warranted because Mr. Frye did not receive effective assistance of counsel and, as a result, his jury imposed this ultimate punishment without having weighed practically any mitigating evidence.
ACLU Capital Punishment Project
ACLU of North Carolina
Pro Bono Counsel
Squire, Sanders & Dempsey L.L.P.