Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Racial Justice Act was repealed.

The Racial Justice Act was repealed this month.  In future posts we will let you know what you can do to help Nathan Bowie.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ask Gov. Perdue to grant Clemency to Nathan Bowie

Please contact Governor Bev Perdue and ask her to grant clemency and commute Nathan Bowie's death sentence to life in prison. She leaves office this month. Nathan had an alcoholic lead attorney who wasn't competent to handle death cases while he was drunk. The original Racial Justice Act (since amended) would have given Nathan a life sentence without possibility of parole.

Governor's Clemency Office 4294 Mail Service Center Raleigh, N.C. 27699-4294 Phone: 919-715-1695 Fax: 919-715-8623 e-mail:

     When Nathan Bowie went on trial for his life, the lawyer in charge of his defense was drinking nine shots of 80-proof rum every night. Tom Portwood, who later died of alcohol-related illnesses, was an alcoholic for 30 years. On his deathbed, he admitted he started drinking as soon as he woke up in the morning and went to court drunk, that drinking affected his decision-making as a lawyer, and that many people went to jail because of his malpractice.
     During his representation of Bowie, Portwood was involved in a car wreck and his blood alcohol level was measured a near-fatal .40, five times the legal limit. It is largely due to Portwood’s disastrous legal representation that Bowie sits on death row today. Bowie and his uncle were tried together and sentenced to death for the murders of two Catawba County men, Nelson Shuford and Calvin Wilson, in 1991. The night before their deaths, while with Shuford, Wilson shot at or near Bowie’s aunt and uncle. Bowie also was led to believe that his aunt had been raped. Bowie’s uncle led him to accept that seeking revenge on the men was a family obligation. Bowie, who was 20 at the time, and his uncle sought out the men and shot them.
     It was an inexcusable crime, but competent legal representation almost certainly would have saved Bowie’s life. First, Bowie turned down an offer to plead guilty to second-degree murder, which would have spared him a death sentence. Portwood never took the time to discuss in detail with Bowie the advantages of the plea or why he should accept it. Then, when he went to trial, Portwood and his inexperienced co-counsel put on no evidence in the guilt phase of the trial and next to none in the sentencing phase. They also failed to hire a mental health expert, and as a result, the jury never heard the tragic story of Bowie’s life.
     Bowie endured a childhood of extreme physical and sexual abuse, neglect and chaos – the type of social history that the U.S. Supreme Court says defines mitigating evidence and, if presented to a jury, begs for a life sentence. At the time of his birth, Bowie’s father was in prison for murder. His mother was 16 years old and addicted to drugs and alcohol. She whipped him with a strap and punched him in the chest as a toddler. When he was just preschool age, she locked him in a room alone for hours at a time. His mother had many children, whom she often left alone for long periods. They were extremely poor, moved frequently and lived in conditions so squalid that the children were bitten by rats. They were sometimes homeless, and when Bowie was eight, they lived in a battered women’s shelter. Bowie was also sexually abused by his grandmother’s boyfriend. The Department of Social Services removed Bowie from his mother’s care when he was 12 years old. He was sent to Sipe’s Boys Home, where he lived from ages 13 to 19 — and was sexually abused again.
     Sexual abuse was rampant at Sipes during that time, and Bowie slept with a large stick he called his “protector.” He and the other black children were also subjected to constant racial epithets. Sipes has been investigated, and at least one employee has been prosecuted for sexually assaulting a child there. Prosecutors also failed to turn over key mitigating evidence, such as the victim’s history of violence towards women and evidence of sexual, physical, and verbal abuse at Sipes. The prosecutor said in closing argument that Sipes was a decent place, despite the fact that he had previously signed off on a plea agreement in a case involving three sexual assaults against Sipes’ residents.
     Bowie is African American. In the sentencing phase of his trial, the prosecutor urged the jury of 11 whites and one African American to impose the death penalty by referencing a “gangland” type shooting - not at all the circumstances of this crime.
    The federal courts found that Nathan’s trial lawyers’ representation of him was “deficient” but found no prejudice.  Bowie v. Polk, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74839 (W.D.N.C. 2006), aff’d Bowie v. Branker, 512 F.3d 112 (4th Cir. 2008), U.S. cert. denied. 
     Nathan has a Racial Justice Act motion pending, but the General Assembly amended the law after another death row prisoner won his claim based in part on identical state-wide statistics of racial discrimination that would have granted Nathan a life-in-prison sentence without parole.      
     The jury that sentenced Nathan to death never heard from the Sipes boys’ home witnesses – the people who loved and knew Nathan best.  Due to procedural rules, the federal judge refused to consider evidence that Portwood perjured himself about his alcohol usage at Nathan’s Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) hearing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Alcoholic Lead Trial Attorney Never Interviewed Nathan's Sister or Other Family Members

Mekia Juanita Shuford, Nathan's sister, cuts an impressive and smart figure in her U.S. Army Reserve uniform. Ms. Shuford, Specialist E-4, served our country in Iraq from February 2006 until April 2007.

She would have made a powerful witness at the sentencing hearing for her brother. As with Nathan's other family members and friends, Mekia Shuford was not interviewed by the alcoholic lead trial attorney or the inexperienced second chair counsel. Together the two court-appointed attorneys spent less than three hours speaking to witnesses who could have influenced the jury to spare Nathan's life.

Doesn't Mekia Shuford's brother deserve better representation than that? Doesn't Mekia, who risked her life wearing our country's uniform, deserve better than that?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

U.S. Supreme Court denies Certiorari - Clemency Last Hope

On June 23, 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Nathan Bowie's Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, his last legal "appeal" to overturn his sentences of death.

Now it's up to the Governor of North Carolina to decide whether to grant clemency to Nathan.

Will you help us? Get your church, mosque or temple to write in favor of saving Nathan's life.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

To Save the Life of Nathan Wayne Bowie

In the evening of May 23, 1991, in Catawba County, N.C., two men shot at 20-year-old Nathan Bowie's aunt and uncle. Nathan was told that his aunt may have been raped by the same two men. The next morning, Nathan and his uncle shot and killed the two men.

Nathan was appointed an attorney known to be an alcoholic to represent him on the murder charges. That attorney, the older "lead" counsel in the case, had been an alcoholic for decades. The attorney was going through a divorce at the same time he was representing Nathan. He continued to drink heavily while he went through the motions of representing Nathan. During this time, he was involved in a motor vehicle accident after which his blood alcohol level registered .40, which is five times the legal limit. A blood alcohol level that high is enough to kill the average man.

Nathan's second attorney was almost fresh out of law school and took orders from the alcoholic lead attorney. Together, they spent less than three hours preparing for the sentencing phase of Nathan's trial, the part where the jury decides if he will live or die.

The United States Supreme Court has said that lawyers must tell the full story of their client's lives in the sentencing phase of a capital trial, because the jury is not only supposed to take into account the facts of the crime, but they must also weigh the factors that shaped the client's life. Background matters. Things like physical or sexual abuse, mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse and other influences on a person's life need to be taken into account in order for the jury to fairly judge culpability.

The attorneys did not interview Nathan's family members, his friends, or the people their client lived with most of his life. These types of witnesses are critical in giving jurors the full picture of someone's life.

The court-appointed attorneys did not interview a single person who lived or worked at the Sipe's Orchard Boys Home where Nathan had lived for almost six years after the Department of Social Services removed him from the poverty-stricken home of his alcoholic and drug-addicted mother. Nathan lived in the boys' home during the formative ages of 13 to 19-years of age.

Neither the jury nor his lawyers knew very much about Nathan Bowie because the lawyers did not bother to ask for the hundreds of pages of records about Nathan's life. They didn't ask for the Department of Social Services records, school records, mental health records or records from the boys' home.

Because they did not investigate, they did not know that Nathan was a favorite of many of the house parents and other kids at the boys' home. They did not know that other children at the boys' home had been raped by a house-parent, and Nathan slept with a big stick to make sure the same didn't happen to him. The jury never heard about the racial epithets used by a house-parent at the boys’ home, or the physical abuse there.

The jury that sentenced Nathan to die did not know that the Guardian Ad Litem for the county found the boys' home to be an "injurious environment" for the youngsters who lived there.

Nathan's alcoholic attorney did not return the phone calls or the overtures from the scores of boys' home workers who cared about Nathan and offered to testify for him, including a deputy sheriff who had lived and worked at the boys' home.

The jury never heard any of this because the attorneys were incompetent, or in the words of the Federal Judge, their performance was constitutionally "deficient." But the Federal Judge decided that all the witnesses that were not presented at trial would not have made a difference in the end under the high habeas corpus standard of review.

The problem started when the first judge to review Nathan's case, a state superior court judge, had signed a 100-page proposed order prepared by the Office of the Attorney General, and didn't change a word of it. From that point on, it’s hard to overturn the "facts" and state law conclusions found in that initial order even when they are incorrect. The initial state judge's findings can be wrong and the execution will still be carried out. The Federal death penalty statute requires the legal findings to be not just wrong, but unreasonably wrong.

Nathan Bowie could be put to death because an advocate in the Attorney General's office prepared an order that a superior court judge signed, and though wrong, the order wasn't wrong or bad enough.

We will keep you posted on the developments, and later, what you can do to help save Nathan's life.