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A Death Row Story

Updated: Mar 12, 2023

From 1994 to 1996, I worked as a federal judicial law clerk for The Honorable David C. Norton in Charleston. Judge Norton was my first exposure to judges and lawyers of the South Carolina Bar. He was an exceptional boss who taught me lessons about civility, professionalism, and legal excellence. Those lessons have contributed to my success over the past quarter of a century.

As a federal judicial law clerk, I worked on hundreds of complex cases. The most demanding cases were the death penalty appeals. Those cases had been litigated for many years. They arrived at the Judge’s chambers in dusty boxes full of trial exhibits, transcripts, and pleadings. Most were appeals by death penalty inmates as last chances to have their death sentences reviewed and overturned.

The one I remember the most involved death row inmate Doyle Cecil Lucas.

As Judge Norton would say, Cecil Lucas did “not deserve much sympathy.”

In 1983, two days after being paroled from prison, Cecil broke into an elderly couple’s home in Rock Hill, South Carolina in the middle of the night. After murdering the couple, Cecil loaded up their belongings, which included a camera and costume jewelry, into a bloody pillowcase. Cecil then left in the couple’s grey Chrysler. He parked it in his driveway overnight. The next day, he took the pillowcase to his neighbor’s house and showed them the stolen goods. When he was arrested, he was wearing the deceased’s watch.

Judge Norton assigned me to review Cecil’s habeas corpus death penalty appeal more than ten years after the murders. In that appeal, Cecil claimed his conviction and death sentence were flawed.

In the midst of that review, Cecil filed a section 1983 lawsuit against three correctional officers of the South Carolina Department of Corrections alleging they had severely beaten him resulting in significant facial swelling and bruising.

Cecil was not a model prisoner. He had a history of fighting correctional officers. On December 21, 1992, while drunk on death row on homemade alcohol, he started to fight with the correctional officers when he refused to go to an isolation cell. The Defendant correctional officers testified they used the force necessary to subdue “a drunken, violent, resisting, profane, belligerent prisoner.”

Cecil testified that his injuries resulted from being dropped on the floor while handcuffed. Additionally, he testified that his injuries resulted from the Defendants’ hitting his face and slamming him into the prison bars. However, the correctional officers testified that Cecil’s injuries occurred when he tripped and fell on his face while they were attempting to avoid Cecil spitting on them.

Judge Norton presided over this trial in federal court for over four days in Columbia, South Carolina. The jury was comprised of four white jurors and four black jurors. Cecil was white, and the three correctional officers were black. Trial testimony revealed that Cecil had used racial slurs towards the guards.

On the first day of trial, three federal marshals escorted Cecil into the courtroom. His legs were shackled, his wrists were cuffed at his waist, and his face was in a restraining mask. Two additional federal marshals were armed and present in the courtroom.

Before Judge Norton called the jury, Cecil’s lawyer stated: “Your honor, we would respectfully request that the hand cuffs, leg shackles, and face mask be removed from the Plaintiff so as to not prejudice the jury.”

The two marshals standing behind Cecil looked at Judge Norton, shaking their heads “no.”

Judge Norton stated, “Mr. Lucas, this is my federal courtroom. I expect you to behave while you are here. I need you to give me your word that you are going to behave. Will you do that?”

“Yes, your honor,” Lucas said through the face mask.

“Okay, Mr. Lucas, don’t let me down,” Judge Norton stated.

Next, Judge Norton instructed, “Take off the face mask and the handcuffs. Leave the leg shackles on. The jury won’t see those under the table.”

Cecil behaved in the courtroom during the four-day trial. All of Cecil’s witnesses were death row inmates whose testimony was introduced via deposition. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Cecil in that trial, finding that the guards had savagely beaten him. The jury awarded him ten cents in damages.

On a post-trial motion for attorneys’ fees by Cecil's attorneys, Judge Norton found that the nominal ten-cent verdict justified a fee award per the case law. In rendering that decision, Judge Norton stated, “It is hard to imagine a more repugnant or unsympathetic client to put before the jury.” He further wrote:

“Cecil Lucas did not have much left in this world; he had the minimal possessions that he was allowed to keep on death row; he had some ability to communicate with the outside world and he retained some of his constitutional rights, having lost his right to liberty and possibility his right to life. One right Ceil Lucas retained on death row was his right under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution to be free from cruel and unusual punishment – that is what this case is all about.”

Shortly after the trial, Cecil waived his death penalty appeal. Judge Norton and I went back to federal court in Columbia, South Carolina for a psychological hearing to evaluate his sanity on his request to die. Cecil was also in the courtroom for that hearing and again agreed to behave. He testified that he did not want to spend any more time on death row.

After reviewing all the testimony, Judge Norton granted his request to waive his appeal thereby allowing the state to set his execution date.

I finished my clerkship in the fall of 1996.

On November 16, 1996, I was driving to work in Charleston over the Cooper River Bridge listening to public radio. I heard the radio announcer state “Cecil Lucas, age 41, the convicted death row inmate who gave up his appeals to hasten his execution, was put to death by lethal injection yesterday.”

On the eve of Cecil’s death, when asked if he had any last messages, Lucas said, “Yeah, tell Judge Norton thank you. He’s the only one who has ever treated me like a man and with respect.”

I saw Judge Norton treat many with respect during my clerkship. In our daily lives and as leaders, we should treat all people with respect, even those whom we think do not deserve it --- like Cecil Lucas.

My next few posts talk about another great judge who presided over the Alex Murdaugh murder trials, Judge Clifton A. Newman. Click the button below to read my pre-verdict thoughts on Judge Newman!

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