North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services: Fighting Systemic Problems One Client at a Time

North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services

Seaga Gillard sat quietly at the defense table in a Wake County courtroom in January 2020 as his attorneys Edd K. Roberts and Jonathan Broun prepared for the first day of jury selection.

Gillard was charged with first-degree murder in the 2016 brutal deaths of April Lynn Holland, who was pregnant, and Dwayne Garvey. Both were gunned down in a room at the Crabtree Valley Best Value Inn. Gillard was found guilty, and a Wake County jury unanimously recommended of murder the death penalty.


Broun, who is senior attorney with the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services (NCPLS), had been assigned as co-counsel by the Capital Defender after the district attorney offered aggravating factors and declared it a death penalty case.

“I’ve handled a dozen murder cases, but this was my first death penalty case,” said Roberts. “Jonathan has considerable experience with death penalty cases. He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to these cases where the state is attempting to take an individual’s life.

“There are two phases in a death penalty case,” Roberts continued. “First, the jury must determine if the suspect was guilty or not guilty. In the second phase, or sentencing phase, we are trying to convince the jury that our client’s life has value, and they should not be put to death.

“What becomes really critical in a capital” case is mitigation; finding out the entire life story of the defendant to determine what humanizing characteristics may impact the jury to give a life sentence versus a death sentence.”

“The United State Supreme Court has made it very clear that when deciding whether to sentence somebody to death, we don’t just look at the crime; we don’t just look at one day in the person’s life,” said Broun. “We look at their entire history, and who they are, their background, how this happened. That’s where my experience comes in.”

Broun and a mitigation specialist appointed by the N.C. Office of Indigent Defense Services went to St. Lucia, where Gillard grew up. They talked to his teachers, family and neighbors.

“This kid grew up in the streets, without a dad and his mom had to struggle to raise him and his brothers and sisters. It was a poverty situation where he was left to be raised by the streets,” said Roberts.


Jonathan Broun has been doing capital cases since 1994. Over the last four years, he has had four first-degree murder trials before Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway. Three of them were capital cases.

“In two cases which I tried in front of Judge Ridgeway, we were able to secure a life sentence: Nate Holden in 2017 and Travioin Smith in 2016,” said Broun. “Also, along with Beth McNeill of NCPLS, we represented James Blackmon last year who was found innocent by a three-judge panel and released after serving over 35 years for a murder he did not commit.”

“What every judge wants, and every citizen should expect is that justice and truth prevail in our courtrooms,” said Judge Ridgeway. “The best way to ensure that is to have people like the North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services involved in some of our tougher cases. They have the ability to focus on cutting edge or emerging issues in the justice system. There may be new or nuances in constitutional rights that are created by the U.S. Supreme Court or the North Carolina Supreme Court.”


“NCPLS is a private, non-profit law firm that exists to provide people incarcerated by the State of North Carolina with their constitutionally required meaningful access to the courts,” said Mary Pollard, the recently appointed executive director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (NCIDS).

NCPLS contracts with the NCIDS to provide inmates incarcerated in the North Carolina Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice with their constitutional right of meaningful access to the courts. The NCPLS has an annual budget of around $3 million, about 90 percent of which comes from the NCDIS contract. It has 16 attorneys and a total staff of around 30 people.

About 75% of NCPLS’s work is on post-conviction cases.

“We get hundreds of letters every week,” said Pollard. “Each and every letter from an incarcerated person concerned about the legality of their conviction or sentence results in a case evaluation by an attorney, and if the person has a viable claim for relief, our attorneys will offer to represent the person in a Motion for Appropriate Relief.”

Every letter is answered whether their case is accepted or not.

“Incarcerated people who write with concerns about conditions of confinement are offered advice and resources advising them about how to advocate on their own behalf, and our attorneys may offer representation in matters that involve serious violations of a constitutional right,” said Pollard.

“Because of the complications of sentence calculations under Structured Sentencing and because of the convoluted processes involved in calculating and applying jail credit, NCPLS more than pays for itself every year by correcting improperly calculated sentences and ensuring that the Division of Adult Correction is not spending tax dollars to incarcerate people beyond their lawful release date,” said Pollard.

“By assisting one client at a time, I fight the systematic problems of the death penalty like in the Gillard case and the criminal justice system in general,” said Broun.

Comments 3

  1. philip coe and stephanie murphy says:

    My name is Stephanie Murphy and my fiance and my daughters dad is Philip Coe. He is disabled, being paralyzed on the left side of his body completely due to having an aneurysm and a stroke 11 years ago. In Jan of this year, he was sentenced to 6 months in the NC State Prison system. He first was sentenced in Surry County then was sent to Grainville Prison. From Grainville to Davie work camp. After that he was sent to Greene CI. While in the custody of the prison staff at Greene CI 4140, he fell on broken pavement headed to medical to get his medicine, and broke his neck. After about 10 minutes, a fellow inmate by the name of MIke Irwin helped him up. When Philip couldnt get his good leg (the right one) underneath him to support his weight so that he could stand, he knew something was wrong. He got the inmates to bring him a wheelchair where they wheeled him to medical. Medical then called for an ambulance to come get him and transport him to the hospital. This was May 9th 2023. Philip was sent to UNC Lenoir Hospital.Now, me being his emergency contact I would have thought that I would be contacted upon him leaving the prison facility via ambulance. I was not and neither was his mother or father, who is a retired police chief in NC. Philip laid in the hospital at UNC Lenoir for about a week and a half while they ran test after test on him. From echos to MRIs and nothing showed anything at all. Finally, someone had the idea to run X-Rays on him, after a week and a half. The X-Rays showed that he had broken his neck. While they sat there for a week and a half stumped on what had happened to philip, his family and kids (esp our daughter who is 5 years old) were worried sick about him. We were NEVER informed of anything to do with Philip. On our end, he had just vanished. He was taken off the text behind app, not even like he was released from prison. Honestly, we thought something very bad had happened like he had died. We called the prison where we knew that he was last at and they would tell us nothing. Not even his dad who is retired law enforcement. I personally called every hospital within a hundred miles of the prison he was in at least twice each and some more than twice, and I was told the same thing everytime, he was not a patient there. Philip was sent from UNC Lenoir to REX where Dr. Coolville performed his surgery. He was told that after the surgery he would be back to his normal and was also told it was a chiari malformation.Within the first 2 weeks of him leaving the prison, we were in touch with another inmates wife there, She had told us that her husband knew that Philip had left there in an ambulance but that his stuff was still there. Then after about a week, she informed us that she was told that in the middle of the night one night, his belongings were cleaned out of his cell and no one knew anything or was told nothing. So,while Philip was at REX he was given no shower, bath, spongebath or any type of wash off. Philip remained at REX for 3 weeks after the surgery. And he was still NEVER washed off, not even his privates. From REX he was sent to CP. There at cp he had a prison staff member to get him and another inmates medicine mixed up and Philip received a diabetics medicine and was getting his finger stuck to check his blood sugar when he called the mans attention and told him that he was not a diabetic. The mans response was, ” Ooops Im sorry”. Luckily, there was no harmful side effects from him taking someone elses medicine or the man who took Philips that was a diabetic. At CP he received one shower. On the 13th of July, he went to Surry County for court and was then held there for two weeks. While in Surry County, Philip was forced to sleep on the floor of the holding cell #2 in intake. for two weeks that was NOT handicap accessible by any means at all. Although he did receive his second shower in two months there from a CO that was very nice and knew he had human rights and that he deserved to be clean. Now, he just isnt disabled being paralyzed on his left side completely, but the man had just broke his neck and had surgery on it and was wheelchair bound since the surgery. He is actually still wheelchair bound to this day, August 20th, 2023. Upon being released to his mother on July 25th, 2023, he came home and he was so terribly gaulded on his privates that it was oozing puss. The puss was so heavy leaking from his privates that it go on his pants and caked up. We have saved the shorts for evidence of this horrible injustice that he had to endure. We also have pictures of it. Also, when he was sent to the hospital in the ambulance, his belongings from Greene CI, were never sent with him or to him. Including the pocketbook that he purchased and paid for from a fellow inmate for his daughter for her birthday, as well as photos of me and of his youngest daughter, Now, Im not no expert on human rights or the legal system or even on medical care but, I know that him receiving only two showers in two months and coming out of there gaulded to the point that his whole private area and region look as if it was blistered from hot water and that he was forced to sleep 2 weeks on the hard floor after having broke his neck and had to have surgery on it, that in my book, is violation of human rights and just down right morally wrong even for a person who wasnt first paralyzed on one side completely. I honestly am just appalled by the care and treatment and care he received in NCs custody. I am also just flabberghasted at Surry County putting him on the hard floor with him having just had neck surgery and esp with him also being disabled as well. Philip deserves to have some justice for this whole incident. He didnt deserve to be treated worse than animals get treated. Not only is he a human being but he is a disabled American and thus he is supposed to be protected under the Disabled Americans Act granting him legal rights to have access to handicap accessible housing and amenities.We just want to shed light on this and get him some justice and to make sure that this kind of thing doesnt happen to another inmate who falls victim to the injustice and horrible treatment of NCs prison system and employees. He currently has to stay with his mom because he is wheelchair bound and I have our five year old who is about to start school this month and I will be starting work and cannot give him pretty much the round the clock care he needs because he has now since the neck surgery, lost most feeling in his right side now as well. Philip could hardly even speak when he got home. He struggles daily now with side effects from the surgery including, difficulty swallowing, holding things in his right hand, coughing, going to the bathroom, standing, even staying in his wheelchair and he still cannot walk. We want this to be known of how he was done, simply because he was a prisoner, these people thought they could just treat him however and it didnt matter. Like no one would care because he was a felon. BUT HE IS A HUMAN AND HAS PEOPLE WHO LOVE HIM AND CARE FOR HIM IMMENSELY no matter if he is a felon. We all have a past and we all do things we arent always proud of. The employees of the NC State Prison system and the hospital employees have things theyve done that they should NOT be proud of and Im very sure that he wasnt the first prisoner to be done this way but we seek to try to make sure that he is the last. We hope that you all find this as horrendous as we all did when we finally spoke to him and learned that he was alive and okay and then when he came home and we seen the actual evidence of neglect he endured. We pray yall have a very blessed day.

  2. Gracie Miller says:

    My nephew has been incarcerated for 43 years for a crime he did not commit. His attorney at ncpls doesn’t seem too interested in helping him or giving him any hope about being released. Is there anyone else we can get help for him. Please help him

  3. Charles Awusin Inko-Tariah says:

    I am orphaned Deaf, Speech-impaired and One-Eyed 99% self-educated Nigerian war survivor (Biafra 1967-1970). I need help with my $8.5 million compensation claim against the BOP over 15 1/2 years wrongful imprisonment for a total of 20 1/2 – 25 year indefinite commitment when l was supposed to spend not more than 5 years since I was not convicted (NGRI) by the Federal Court, Washington DC for the notorious arson disruption of underground metro subway 7-31-98 protesting perceived great injustice of politically motivated kidnapping, police brutality and conspiracy to frame me in murder by the Norfolk, VA Police Detective J. Rick Malbon with the collusion of official and “friends” of Gallaudet University, Washington DC on Saturday October 3, 1992. The BOP stonewalled on my compensation claim dated September 2, 2019. The prison authorities held me hostage over the several manuscripts which the psychiatrist and Warden Arthur F. Beeler wanted for their own enrichment. I balked in 1998, 2000 and 2013 hence the personal vendetta including repeated murder attempts. I have been conditionally released effective 12-14-2018 after 25-year commitment. Need your assistance.

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