Editor's note: At press time, a Wake County Superior Court judge had temporarily blocked the execution of Robert Bacon, Jr. based on arguments by his attorneys that Gov. Mike Easley has a conflict of interest in reviewing Bacon's application for clemency. Easley had opposed Bacon's appeals as state attorney general, and had prosecuted Bacon's case in 1984 as a local district attorney. Last week, Bacon's lawyers filed a class action suit on behalf of their client and 100 other death row inmates that made similar arguments about Easley's role in death penalty cases.
When her sister called her 14 years ago and told her the news, Marilyn Wright did not believe it. There was no way, she thought, that her younger brother, Robert, could have committed a murder.
But the news was true. On Feb. 1, 1987, Robert Bacon, Jr., an African American, had stabbed a white man named Glennie Leroy Clark to death after Clark called him "nigger."
Bacon is scheduled to be executed Friday at 2 a.m. in Raleigh's Central Prison. Unless an appeals court steps in, or Gov. Mike Easley commutes the sentence, Bacon, 41, will become the 18th person executed in North Carolina since 1984--since the state reinstated the death penalty following a U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared it to be constitutional.
Bacon's parents, two brothers and three sisters have all maintained close ties to the family's fifth child since he was sent to death row. Wright, who lives in Norfolk, Va., has driven thousands of miles over the years to see her brother through the glass partition in the prison visiting room. (Central Prison inmates are not permitted contact visits.)
"There's no way in this world that I ever thought that I'd be walking into a prison, and one of my brothers or sisters are behind a glass for something so horrific as murder," Wright says. Especially Robert, she adds. Violence of any kind was completely out of character for him, and Clark's murder was his first run-in of any kind with the law. "Obviously, I just automatically thought they got the wrong person. They got the wrong man."
A complex lovers' triangle led to the murder. Bacon was involved with Clark's wife, Bonnie Sue Clark, who claimed that her husband abused her and their two children, Brandon and Brittany. Bonnie Sue wanted her husband killed and urged Bacon to do it.
hen Onslow County investigators approached Bacon after the murder, he cooperated with them and admitted his guilt. Bonnie Sue Clark, present when the killing took place, attempted to cover up her role in it. Nonetheless, she was convicted of murder and given a life sentence. Bacon's lawyers see this as evidence of racial bias on the part of the respective juries, since Bonnie Sue is white. She will be eligible for parole in 2007.
Bacon, by contrast, was sentenced to death twice by all-white juries, first at his 1987 trial and then, after the sentence was overturned by an appeals court, in a resentencing trial in 1991. "I don't have any doubt that racial bias played a role in Robert Bacon's death sentence," says Gretchen Engel of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, who is one of his appellate defense attorneys.
"Robert had no criminal history, so there's nothing in the record to justify a harsher sentence [than Clark's]," Engel argues. And nothing about Clark's behavior after the crime would justify leniency when Bacon, who confessed and directed investigators to incriminating evidence in the case, is slated to die. "There isn't a rational, reasonable reason why she should be eligible for parole and he's facing execution."
Engel is waging a campaign to persuade Easley that killing Bacon would be an injustice. Recently, she was approached by one of the 1991 jurors who had something to get off her conscience. In a signed affadavit, the juror, Pamela Smith, says: "I remember that during our deliberations there was a discussion of the fact that Bacon was dating a white woman. Some jurors felt that it was wrong for a black man to date a white woman. Jurors also felt that black people commit more crime, and that it is typical of blacks to be involved in crime.
"We talked about this for at least 10 to 15 minutes," Smith's affidavit continues, "and some jurors were adamant in their feeling that Bacon was a black man and 'he deserved what he got.' I understood this to mean that those jurors believed that Bacon should receive the death penalty again. I felt that the jurors who expressed these attitudes about race believed that these views justified the death penalty. I was offended by this discussion. I strongly believe that race should not play a part in whether someone lives or dies."
Under pressure, however, Smith voted for the death sentence, a decision she told Engel she now regrets.
In 1995, Engel traveled to Ayer, Mass., the town where Bacon's parents have lived since he started high school. She saw first-hand, she says, how Elizabeth and Robert Bacon, Sr. are grieving over what their son did and his sentence. His bedroom remains as he left it when he moved to North Carolina to meet up with some friends who were in the Marine Corps in Jacksonville.
"They had not changed it," she says. "Mrs. Bacon is looking at losing a son in the same way Glennie Clark's mother lost her son."
Some time after that, Bacon asked Engel how long he had left before his sentence would be carried out. "He wished his mother would precede him in death so she would not have to be around to witness his execution."
arilyn Wright thinks Bonnie Sue Clark must have brainwashed her brother. "Robert doesn't have a violent bone in his body. At least that's what we knew. He was always helping somebody. He never, ever, ever hurt anybody," she says. "I'm still in shock from this thing all the way up to this point."
Robert was their mother's best friend. When he headed for North Carolina, Wright says, he was trying to show her that he was a man. But "he was her little man," she says. "When he went into jail, he was a baby, and all I could see behind the glass was my baby brother."
Wright, her parents and older brother, Elton Jackson, were scheduled to meet with Easley Tuesday, when he considers the arguments for and against commutation.
"We'll be there, right behind my little brother, to see what we can do to save him from this. I'm praying very hard in my heart. It's in God's hand now," Wright says. "One more hand or two would be the governor's, and hopefully, he has heart as far as being fair.
"The situation here is not only in black and white," Wright adds. "It's about being fair. My brother's black and Bonnie is white, but they were together. She planned this, hooked it up, made it happen ... she deceived the police. He did the right thing."
Only Wright will remain in Raleigh to witness the execution if it takes place, she says. Her mother would not be able to bear it.
In a videotape he was allowed to make for Easley, Bacon asks for mercy.
"I do want to live, basically for my mother and my family," he says. "And if I have the chance to live, to make restitution to Brandon and Brittany [Clark] whichever way I can."