42 Killers Sentenced to Die : Tenacious North Carolina Prosecutor Builds His Life on Death
Tucked away in the southeast corner of North Carolina is a prosecutor whose skill at winning death penalty cases is a source of awe for both admirers and opponents.
Dist. Atty. Joe Freeman Britt is 6-foot-6, with a warm smile, a hard stare and a flair for courtroom theatrics. He unfurls victims’ bloody clothing before jurors, waves a Bible while quoting Scripture and conjures up haunting images of the dead.
“You’ve got to use every argument in your arsenal because you never know what’s going to convince a jury,” said Britt, who serves the 16th District of North Carolina.
Ranks in Book of Records
He has won more death sentences--42 of them--than any other lawyer, according to the National Law Journal. The Guinness Book of World Records calls him the “deadliest prosecutor.” So far just one--poisoner Velma Barfield--has actually been executed.
In some cases, Britt has won multiple death sentences against a single murderer. So far, 17 of the sentences, involving nine people, have stood the test of multiple appeals.
Admirers and foes--and Britt himself--attribute his overwhelming success to his dramatics, bolstered by his dogged preparedness.
“Joe Freeman is something like a hurricane in court,” said retired Wake County Superior Court Judge Pou Bailey. “He’s a showman, a flamboyant fellow, but he’s got the stuff to back it up. That’s the secret to his success.”
His latest major case sent Casey Jack Monroe to Death Row in March for the murder of a social worker. The 50-year-old veteran chooses his cases carefully and has never lost one in 13 years as district attorney. Only four times has a defendant gotten a life sentence when Britt was seeking death.
“The problem with the death penalty is that it depends so much on vagaries--what county, who prosecuted, who defended,” said Joe Cheshire, a prominent Raleigh lawyer and opponent of capital punishment. “Joe Freeman Britt’s got it down to a fine science.”
Britt said he prepares for a capital case on the factual, legal and even physical level. He said a trial is so physically draining that he trains for it like he would an athletic event.
He pores over evidence and legal documents, talks to witnesses and detectives and cloisters himself for months before a trial--plotting a course that conveys to the jury what he calls “the dimensions of the horror of the crime.”
In a trial last December, Britt held up a photograph of a murder victim and urged jurors to listen to the dead man’s “message.”
“He is speaking to you through a little hole in his head,” Britt said of Jackie Ray Ransom, who was shot in the head Sept. 8, 1984. “He is telling you about the violence of his death. And Larry Jones (a second victim) is speaking to you from that shallow, unmarked grave.”
Britt once steeped a courtroom in “a deathly silence” for five minutes--the time it took an 11-year-old murder victim to suffocate. Leon Brown and Buddy McCollum are currently on Death Row for the murder.
“You’ll never be able to convince them (jurors) of the horror of the crime if you don’t show them where the holes are in the (victim’s) clothing,” Britt said in a recent interview. “It’s easy to give a jury knowledge--on this date the bullet left the defendant’s gun and entered the victim’s body.
“But giving the jury understanding of the width, depth and length of the crime--the dimensions of the horror of the crime. . . .How can you sit in a calm, orderly, well-lighted courtroom and immerse them in that horror?” Britt asked.
“He’s a damn good actor,” Bailey said. “When he decides to plead, he sounds just like a little child pleading. When he decides to go after you, he sounds like a wild bull roaring.
“It’s a damn good show and well done,” Bailey added.
Cheshire attributed Britt’s success to the district attorney’s specialization in capital cases. Britt has said he prefers to prosecute only capital cases and minutely detailed white-collar crimes.
“Anyone that can spend all their time on one thing--which he seems to do--has a good chance of beating a general practitioner, which is what most of us (lawyers) are,” Cheshire said.
Britt, who says he was a death penalty foe himself during his “wet-behind-the-ears college days,” is a self-proclaimed true believer. The changeover was gradual. “I had no blinding revelation,” he said.
“This has a sobering effect for anyone: You’re walking down a muddy ditch in the fog at daybreak,” he said, drawing out the words and gesturing dramatically. “And the fog begins to lift and you find a 13-year-old girl with her dress up over her head and a bloody grin from ear to ear where someone slit her throat.
“Multiply that by a lot of sights and sounds and smells and see that enough times and it affects your perspective.”
Britt recalls being brought up believing the death penalty did not deter killers. But now he says he has a different attitude. Capital punishment deters each murderer executed, cutting down on homicides because many convicted murderers released from prison on parole kill again, Britt said.
“And in some cases, it’s simply an appropriate type of punishment. Some acts are so wild, so vile and violent that the public’s thirst for justice cries out for the ultimate penalty,” he said.
Britt practiced his craft as a part-time assistant district attorney while also practicing private law for eight years before he was elected to the job full time.
He says his theatrics, pleadings and storming about the courtroom are essential because every time he seeks the death penalty, he is rubbing against the grain of 12 people’s natural instincts.
“You could have 12 Dirty Harry clones in the (jury) box, but when it comes to the moment of judgment there’s a natural revulsion to (the death penalty),” he said.
The only person Britt sent to Death Row who has been executed was Velma Barfield, a 54-year-old grandmother convicted in 1978 of poisoning her fiance. Evidence in the trial showed that she also poisoned three other people, including her mother.
Before her execution, Barfield said she found a renewed faith in the Lord and took a role in rehabilitating other inmates. She became the first woman executed in the United States in 22 years when she died by lethal injection Nov. 2, 1984.
“Velma was the perfect banner for liberal, anti-death penalty activists,” Britt said. “She had it all--she was a little old grandmother, an ex-Sunday school teacher, and, as even the families of the victims said, ‘She could pray the prettiest prayer.’ ”
But Britt justifies her execution: “The question really is, should rehabilitation generate some sort of credit against the punishment imposed by the court? Whether the credit applies depends on the size of the debit.
Debit ‘Too Large’
“Where she has in the most brutal fashion killed not one, not two, not three, but four people and the jury saw fit to impose the maximum penalty, I say NO. The debit is too large,” he said.
But Britt cautions that the death penalty is only appropriate for a very small segment of homicides--especially carefully plotted murders with aggravating circumstances.
“Joe’s real secret is his ability to appraise a case,” Bailey said. “Joe doesn’t spin his wheels when he doesn’t have a case. He’s got the guts to say, ‘The state doesn’t have a first-degree murder case here and I ain’t going for it.’
“But when he walks into the courtroom and says, ‘We’re going for the death penalty,’ people who know Joe know it’s a death penalty case. If I was going to commit a crime, I wouldn’t do it in Joe Freeman’s district,” Bailey said.