top of page
  • Carolina Journal Staff

State high court weighs gender discrimination jury claims for death row inmate, co-defendant


The North Carolina Supreme Court heard a death row inmate’s claims Tuesday that his 2001 murder conviction was tainted by gender discrimination in jury selection. Both Bryan Christopher Bell and co-defendant Antwaun Sims challenge their convictions.


Bell sits on North Carolina’s death row. Sims is serving a life sentence without parole.

The Supreme Court heard new oral arguments related to Bell and Sims this week after a February 2023 ruling from Onslow County Superior Court Judge Charles Henry favoring the two inmates.


Henry determined that the dismissal of prospective juror Viola Morrow in the 2001 case was “improperly motivated by gender discriminatory intent.” The judge based his decision in part on a 2012 affidavit from a prosecutor explaining that the state was seeking to seat more male jurors in the 2001 trial after selecting 10 women.


“The claim that we’ve raised in post-conviction is specifically a claim that the state violated Ms. Morrow’s rights to be a juror,” Dionne Gonder-Stanley, Bell’s lawyer.


Gonder-Stanley cited a previous court precedent describing “gender discrimination in jury selection bringing harm to not just the litigants, but also the community that relies on the court system and individual jurors.”


“Our courts shouldn’t shield the state’s unconstitutional conduct that they committed here,” she added.


Bell and Sims ask the state Supreme Court to overturn their convictions and send their cases back to Superior Court for new trials.


Special Deputy Attorney General Teresa Postell of the state Justice Department argued that court rules bar the gender discrimination claim at this stage of the case. Bell and Sims knew at the time of their trial that prosecutors were trying to seat more male jurors, Postell said. The later affidavit did not give them a new reason to return to court.


“There’s nothing new about that,” Postell said. “The test is whether there’s enough information for the defendant to have previously brought that claim. There’s absolutely plenty of information.”


“Just because the defendant acquires one more piece of something that adds to the cumulativeness or merely repeats what was already in the record to begin with does not change that calculus,” she added.


In August 2001, a jury convicted Bell and Sims of first-degree murder in the death of Elleze Kennedy of Newton Grove.


“This defendant [Bell} and his co-defendant Sims attacked, trapped — for hours — repeatedly beat, and then killed 89-year-old Elleze Kennedy with fire,” Postell explained to the high court. “They worked together to do this.”


Bell and Sims locked Kennedy in the trunk of her car and drove her to the end of a dirt path, where the car was burned while Kennedy was still alive. Authorities found Kennedy in the charred car the next day.


“Bell is the one who had the idea to steal the car, and he’s the one who lit his jacket on fire and threw it in her car when they had her trapped in the truck,” Postell explained. “Co-defendant Sims agreed that he would participate and, in fact, said that he was down for whatever.”


“He did participate in helping to plan to kidnap, rob, and murder Ms. Kennedy,” Postell continued. “He also is the person … that produced the fire-starting material — the lighter — that was used to kill her. And he’s the one who went back to make sure that the defendants had successfully murdered Ms. Kennedy.”


A third suspect, Chad Lamont Williams, implicated himself and testified against Sims and Bell. Williams was later sentenced to life in prison.


Bell was 19 at the time of the murder. Sims and Williams were 18 years old.

Justice Phil Berger Jr. questioned the role of the affidavit from Assistant District Attorney Greg Butler produced more than a decade after the trial. The DA in the case had raised concerns in open court in 2001 about the number of women on the jury. “Why is that evidence — again, the statement of the district attorney that there are too many women on the jury — why is that inconsistent with the affidavit provided by Butler?”


“Our post-conviction statutes are established to provide relief but also to provide finality,” Berger added.  A precedent case called Tucker “stands for the proposition that repackaged information isn’t enough to overcome the procedural bar,” Berger said.


There is no deadline for the state Supreme Court to issue a ruling in State v. Bell or State v. Sims.


0 views0 comments

Comments


  • Facebook
  • YouTube
bottom of page