A true-to-life “Law & Order” Psychology professor’s mitigation work helped free death row inmate
The story of Edward Chapman, who spent 14 years in Central Prison before his release in 2008, could be a script—“ripped from the headlines”—for the popular TV drama “Law and Order.” Wrongfully convicted on two murder charges, Chapman is celebrating his first year of freedom and a normal life, thanks largely to part-time mitigation specialist Pamela Laughon, UNC Asheville Psychology Department chair.
Laughon works outside her “day job” as a court-appointed mitigation specialist for defense attorneys, helping secure life sentences for inmates on death row. To Chapman, she’s a guardian angel.
“The term ‘mitigation specialist’ had not been created when I started doing this work 13 years ago,” Laughon said. “If a person is convicted of first-degree murder, it’s my job to determine how to persuade a jury to spare his life. I find out everything there is to know about the client from birth to the time of the offense, focusing on characteristics that make this person human, not just a killer.”
“...but over time, students started begging to work with me, and it was their excitement and interest that led me to begin offering a practicum course in capital murder litigation.”
Chapman’s freedom was a dream come true for him and a once-in-a-career event for Laughon. “The goal for me in a death row appeal is to get a death sentence converted to a life sentence. That’s usually the best I can do,” she said. “When I realized Ed was innocent, I knew we needed to get more than a new sentence for Ed. He deserved to be freed.”
Appointed to Chapman’s case in 2002, Laughon worked tirelessly, with help from several student researchers, piecing together details of the 1992 crime that took place in Hickory. “In the earlier years of my death penalty work, I would never have allowed students to work on cases, partly because I was learning my trade,” Laughon said. “But over time, students started begging to work with me, and it was their excitement and interest that led me to begin offering a practicum course in capital murder litigation.”
“I didn’t have an opinion on the death penalty before, but when I saw all the discrepancies in a case, I felt a little different.”
Kristina Cobb ’09 (Psychology) worked on one of Laughon’s cases, reading every piece of paper gathered on the client and offering Laughon and the legal defense team new insights. “I didn’t have an opinion on the death penalty before, but when I saw all the discrepancies in a case, I felt a little different,” Cobb said.
Lauren Wood ’09 (Psychology) plans to work as a mitigation specialist next year before attending law school. “We try to see things the lawyers may have missed. It’s a little intimidating, having my work possibly make a difference in whether a person lives or dies.”
In December 2007, the court vacated Chapman’s death sentences and granted him a new trial, citing withheld exculpatory evidence, perjury by a lead detective, presentation of false evidence, and ineffective assistance of counsel. The Catawba County district attorney declined to retry Chapman for either murder and dismissed the charges. Chapman was released from Central Prison’s death row April 2, 2008, with no money and nowhere to go but home to Hickory, where trouble surely awaited.
Laughon stepped in again, providing room and board until he could find a job and a place to live. He became a cause celebre and the subject of articles in local and national media, including The New York Times. In Asheville, people generously reached out to him. He was offered a house to rent at reasonable cost. He got a job and began to re-negotiate tasks such as getting a Social Security Number and a driver’s license. (Dean Lisa Friedenberg lent him a car to take his driver’s test.) Small things like the feel of rain and sound of crickets were a joy to him.
In an effort to raise awareness of the complexity of death penalty issues, Chapman and Laughon speak across the state about how his case fell through the cracks in the criminal justice system and about her work as a mitigation specialist. (To date Laughon has been appointed in 87 capital cases in three states, resulting in only 10 men on death row.)
Meanwhile Chapman hasn’t missed a day of work in housekeeping at the Renaissance Hotel in Asheville, and is convinced he owes his new life to forgiveness. “I was an immature knucklehead,” he said. “I was into drugs and moonshine back then, and I made myself an easy target. But when you let people have power over you, you lose everything. I took the power back through forgiveness. Forgiveness is power. I’m stronger, smarter and wiser and it feels good.”