Gell rallies for moratorium

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 18, 2004

WINDSOR – Standing just a short distance from where he earned his freedom in February of this year, former Death Row inmate Alan Gell struck a blow against North Carolina’s current death sentencing standards here Monday night.

In a unanimous vote, the Bertie County Board of Commissioners became the 29th local government unit and the fourth county in North Carolina to call for an immediate moratorium on executions.

Gell, of Lewiston-Woodville, was exonerated in February after a Bertie County jury found him innocent of the 1995 slaying of Allen Ray Jenkins of Aulander. He was found guilty of that crime in 1998 and spent four years on Death Row before the second trial set him free.

Since March, Gell has been traveling around the state in an effort to shed light on the way North Carolina doles out death sentences. He and others have expressed a desire to see the state call for a two-year moratorium on executions while an in-depth study is conducted on the sentencing structure.

Currently, Gell is a community organizer with People of Faith Against the Death Penalty’s (PFADP) NC Moratorium Now Campaign. He told the Bertie Board on Monday night of the need for a moratorium. PFADP Field Director Jeremy Collins joined Gell in answering questions from the board about the moratorium.

&uot;The basis of the communication between Mr. Gell, Mr. Collins and our Board centered around the state coming up with a better set of rules when it comes to sentencing a person to die,&uot; said Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb. &uot;It’s not that they were asking each and every person on Death Row to be set free, rather urging the state to call for a moratorium while the issue can be closely studied.&uot;

Lamb said that North Carolina state senators Robert Holloman, Clark Jenkins and Marc Basnight are proponents of the moratorium.

&uot;Their efforts led to the passage of a moratorium in the Senate’s last session,&uot; said Lamb. &uot;But the measure never made it out of the House (of Representatives). Now the measure will have to be reintroduced in both chambers when they reconvene in January.’

Prior to calling for Monday’s vote, Bertie Board of Commissioners Chairman Rick Harrell asked County Attorney Lloyd Smith if he had any concerns about the resolution the board was about to consider. Smith replied that he would have to excuse himself from the issue because he is &uot;passionately in favor&uot; of an immediate moratorium. He said he was familiar with too many unfair outcomes in criminal cases not to support a moratorium.

&uot;Mr. Smith is actively involved in this issue through his association with the Academy of North Carolina Trial Lawyers,&uot; noted Lamb

Commissioner L.C. Hoggard motioned in favor of the resolution and Vice-Chairman Norman M. Cherry, Sr., seconded the motion.

Throughout his ordeal, Gell maintained his innocence following his arrest on murder charges. There was no physical evidence presented linking him to the crime scene or the murder weapon. However, that didn’t prevent him from being found guilty in February of 1998. He was sentenced to die.

The verdict from the first trial was overturned in December, 2002 when Bertie County Superior Court Judge Cy Grant ruled that the original state prosecutors withheld key evidence dealing with 17 witnesses who said they saw Jenkins alive after April 3, 1995, the day the state claimed that Gell shot Jenkins twice in the chest.

Using that newfound information plus key scientific evidence presented by five expert witnesses, Gell’s new team of defense lawyers, headed by Joseph Cheshire of Raleigh and James Cooney of Charlotte, tore away at the April 3 murder date in order to show that their client was innocence. Gell was out of the state from April 4-5 and incarcerated in the Bertie-Martin Regional Jail from April 6-20 on a charge of vehicle theft.

According to the witness statements plus a post-mortem timeline presented by a forensic anthropologist, an entomologist and a key recantation of the time of death by the medical examiner associated with Jenkins’ autopsy, testimony was heard in the new trial that Jenkins was murdered between April 8-10.