Joe Freeman Britt, a flamboyant district attorney from North Carolina who notoriously and proudly wore the title of the country’s “deadliest prosecutor” by winning dozens of death-row convictions in his rural district, died April 6 in his home town of Lumberton, N.C. He was 80.
The death was first reported in North Carolina media outlets. The cause of death was not disclosed.
Mr. Britt took office as a district attorney in 1974, quickly building a reputation as a tenacious prosecutor in a rural area of eastern North Carolina that included Robeson and Scotland counties.
During the previous 27 years, no one in the two counties had been sentenced to death. After just one year on the job, Mr. Britt had won more death-row convictions than any other prosecutor in the country.
“I’m not some hick prosecutor just railroading these people away,” Mr. Britt told Newsweek magazine in 1975. “I don’t like to use words like crusade, but I’m doing something I like doing that needs to be done.”
Robeson County had a population of about 100,000, equally divided among black, white and American Indian residents. It was one of the poorest regions in North Carolina, with a thriving drug trade and the state’s highest murder rate.
The 6-foot-6 Mr. Britt was an intimidating courtroom presence, powerfully built with a shock of wavy hair and a flair for oratory, highlighted by his booming baritone voice. He brandished the bloody clothing of murder victims before the jury, waved a Bible in his hand and spoke as if channeling the voices of victims.
“That poor victim lying six feet underground has nobody to speak for him but me,” he told Newsweek, “and nobody to hear his side but 12 jurors.”
As a college student, Mr. Britt had campaigned against the death penalty, but after becoming a district attorney, he changed his mind.
He won a designation in the Guinness Book of Records as “the deadliest prosecutor.”
Mr. Britt appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and led training sessions throughout the country to teach other prosecutors how to win convictions. “Go after them and tear that jugular out,” he said in a session filmed by “60 Minutes.”
Mr. Britt ultimately won 47 death-sentence convictions. Because of court rulings, appeals and overturned sentences, only two of the people he prosecuted were put to death. One of them was Velma Barfield, a grandmother and Sunday-school teacher who was convicted of fatally poisoning her boyfriend. She admitted in court that she had also killed her mother and two elderly people in her care. (Her two husbands died in mysterious house fires, but she was not charged with their deaths.)
“Velma Barfield is a sweet little old lady in appearance, and underneath she is a coldblooded, merciless killer,” Mr. Britt said.
Barfield, known as North Carolina’s “Death Row Granny,” was executed by lethal injection in 1984.
Despite Mr. Britt’s dramatic effectiveness as a prosecutor, some of his practices drew criticism from other lawyers and outside observers.
“He’s a fair man who treats everyone the same,” one defense attorney told the New York Times in 1988. “He’s mean to everyone.”
A 1983 study by an organization investigating justice in rural America found that Mr. Britt’s near-total control of the court system in Robeson and Scotland counties led to “a widespread and serious denial of [the] rights” of poor defendants.
Bails were set unreasonably high, the study found, and the court calendar — set by Mr. Britt — often forced defendants to wait for weeks before their cases were heard. Minority defendants were prosecuted at higher rates, and many were improperly told that they would have to repay the state if they asked for a court-appointed lawyer.
After 14 years as a prosecutor, Mr. Britt ran for election as a superior court judge. His opponent in the race was Julian T. Pierce, a Lumbee Indian who had a degree from Georgetown University and had worked in Washington for the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Six weeks before the primary election in 1988, Pierce was shot three times at point-blank range with a shotgun in his home. Two men were arrested and charged with his killing, which was officially determined to be the result of a complicated family dispute.
Mr. Britt won his judgeship and presided for seven years over the same court in which he had been chief prosecutor. After serving as judge, Mr. Britt had a private practice as a defense attorney before retiring in 2006.
The current prosecutor in the office is Johnson Britt, who has never tried to hide his disdain for his distant cousin.
“He is a bully, and that’s the way he ran this office,” Johnson Britt told the Times in 2014. “People were afraid of him. Lawyers were afraid of him. They were intimidated by his tactics. And he didn’t mind doing it that way.”
Joe Freeman Britt was born July 22, 1935, and grew up in Lumberton. His father was a lawyer. He was a graduate of Wake Forest University and then served in the Army before receiving his law degree in 1963 from Florida’s Stetson University.
Mr. Britt was known for his courtroom quotations from the Bible and literary works, and his love of cigars. He sometimes piloted a helicopter.
Survivors include his wife of 48 years, Marylyn Linkhaw Britt of Lumberton; two children; and four grandchildren.
One of Mr. Britt’s celebrated cases came in 1983, when two teenage half-brothers were convicted of raping and killing an 11-year-old girl. There were questions about their guilt at the time, especially after another girl was killed in a similar manner when the two were in jail.
During the trial, the teens, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, maintained their innocence and sparred with Mr. Britt on the witness stand.
“Didn’t that touch your soul at all when that little girl was down on the ground hollering?” Mr. Britt asked.
“It didn’t touch my soul because I didn’t kill nobody,” McCollum replied.
“It doesn’t touch your soul now, does it?” Mr. Britt insisted.
“Because I ain’t killed nobody,” McCollum said. “I want to tell you something, Joe Freeman — God got your judgment right in hell waiting for you.”
McCollum and Brown served more than 30 years in prison — including years on death row — before they were exonerated by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. A cigarette found at the scene of the crime contained DNA from the man who had been convicted for the other nearby killing while the brothers were jailed.
Last year, McCollum and Brown were pardoned by North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R). Mr. Britt remained unrepentant and called the governor “a damn fool” to grant the pardon. In spite of the DNA evidence — which Mr. Britt called “spit on a cigarette” — he maintained that his original conviction of the teens in the 1980s was justified.
“No question about it,” he said. “Absolutely they are guilty.”