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Daniel Gwynn sat on death row for 30 years. Meet the Northeastern law grad who helped set him free

Gretchen Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, is a lawyer and advocate for those facing capital punishment.

Daniel Gwynn posing with four other people.
Northeastern School of Law graduate Gretchen Engel (center) and other supporters with Danny Gwynn (center right), a man Engel helped exonerate from death row. Courtesy photo.

While on co-op as a student at Northeastern University School of Law in spring 1991, Gretchen Engel drove from Montgomery, Alabama, to meet with a client on the state’s death row — a 90-minute journey that took her through the hometown of “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee.

She cried the whole trip back.

“I think I realized the reality of what the death penalty really means — that this human being I met, there are very large forces and institutions that want to put him in the electric chair,” Engel says. 

More than 30 years later, a painting from that client hangs on the wall behind Engel’s desk at The Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina, inspiring her to fight on behalf of those who face the law’s toughest punishments, including death. 

Engel recently won a major battle in that fight.

Gretchen with shoulder-length brown hair and a black shirt, smiling outside
Gretchen Engel, a 1992 graduate of Northeastern School of Law, was co-counsel for Daniel Gwynn, who was exonerated after almost 30 years on death row in Pennsylvania.
Courtesy photo

On Feb. 27, a judge approved a motion from the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office to dismiss first-degree murder, arson and aggravated assault charges against Daniel Gwynn, 54, who had been on death row for nearly 30 years.

“The exoneration of Daniel Gwynn today frees a man who is likely innocent. Sadly, it also exemplifies an era of inexact and, at times, corrupt policing and prosecution that has broken trust with our communities to this day,” District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a press release. “The public expects the right consequences for those who commit violent crimes, and wants the innocent to be free. When law enforcement wrongly arrests, prosecutes, and imprisons the innocent, the guilty go free and are emboldened to do more harm.”

Engel was Gwynn’s co-counsel. 

She recalled the moment when she, her co-counsel and fellow supporters of Gwynn greeted the freed man as he walked out of prison.

“You know, some people are good at hugs and other people are sort of OK at it: he’s really good at it,” Engel says of Gwynn.

The Gwynn Case

Gwynn was convicted in 1994 for the death of Marsha Smith in a fatal fire, and he was sentenced to death. But Engel and the DA’s office say Gwynn’s conviction was based on a false and coerced confession that contradicted physical evidence, including how and where the fire started and — Gwynn said — took advantage of his altered mental state while withdrawing from drugs. 

The conviction was also based on mistaken eyewitness testimony and prosecutorial misconduct, including the failure to disclose additional evidence suggesting a different suspect, according to the DA’s office. That other suspect was convicted of murder in a separate case and is serving a life sentence, Assistant District Attorney David Napiorski told CBS News Philadelphia.

The exoneration marked the end of nearly a decade of work for Engel, who had signed on to the case in 2015. 

She calls the outcome — her first death row exoneration — a “big highlight” of her career. 

But it’s a career that Engel didn’t necessarily see coming until Northeastern.

Interest in issues involving race and poverty

Engel says she was always interested in issues of race and poverty and remembered researching the death penalty and reading Albert Camus’ essay, “Reflections on the Guillotine,” as a debate participant in high school in the Midwest.

“Race and poverty were always issues that I thought were the most compelling, and the death penalty brings those issues together in very sharp relief,” Engel says. 

But after graduating from Oberlin College, Engel addressed these issues not through the law, but through service work.

Race and poverty were always issues that I thought were the most compelling, and the death penalty brings those issues together in very sharp relief.

Gretchen Engel, a 1992 graduate of the Northeastern School of Law

She worked in Wisconsin with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), an anti-poverty program designed to provide resources to nonprofit organizations and public agencies to increase their capacity. VISTA is now a part of AmeriCorps. She then traveled to work for two years in Indonesia. 

“I went with very high ideals of what I might be able to do in Indonesia, but I wasn’t an engineer and I wasn’t a doctor, so I wasn’t very useful,” Engel says. 

Engel says she nevertheless gained a lot from the experience, including the realization of how important it was to work in one’s own community.

“Really, people in Indonesia need to be empowered and they need to be the ones in charge of making the decisions about how to make their society better,” Engel says. “The place where I need to work is in my own community.”

So, she considered law school. 

Northeastern School of Law and co-ops

Engel recalled that Michael Meltsner, Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law Emeritus at Northeastern, and a prominent civil rights attorney who successfully argued a capital case before the Supreme Court in 1963 at age 26, had visited Oberlin as a graduate and a parent while she was an undergrad. 

Engel thought of Northeastern and would later take a seminar with Meltsner.

“She was an excellent student and was interested in the subject even then,” Meltsner recalls. “She has continued to play a critical role in challenging the way North Carolina deals with death penalty issues. She has found ways to direct and support an organization over the long haul that fights against some of the worst aspects of the criminal justice system.”

Engel also “adored” the late Dan Givelber, who was working on a capital case when she was a student. 

Her co-op experiences in Georgia and Alabama were also formative in her decision to practice capital cases.

For instance, Engel described her co-op in Montgomery, Alabama, with lawyer and advocate Bryan Stevenson, who later became founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, as “pivotal” to her career choice.

“Bryan himself and the other staff attorneys there were very committed and smart and kind human beings who are wonderful lawyers that really were mentors and examples of what a lawyer should be,” Engel says. 

She followed this with a similar co-op experience at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Georgia. 

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Center for Death Penalty Litigation

Following law school graduation, Engel joined the North Carolina Resource Center — one of several federally funded centers throughout what Engel called the “Death Belt” in the South and Midwest — representing indigent clients facing the death penalty. 

The center was the predecessor to the CDPL, which now is a nonprofit litigation firm, clearinghouse of information and resources on capital cases, and which advocates for criminal justice reform, including the end of the death penalty.

“Abolish it,” Engel says of her hopes for the future of the death penalty. “I’ve always felt that.”

Engel primarily focuses on post-conviction cases, meaning that the client has been sentenced to death, appealed the ruling to the state’s highest court and lost the appeal. 

But while it may seem like the case is over, that’s where Engel’s work really begins.

The appeal basically focuses on the transcript in the original case, Engel explains. This involves examining such questions as, for example, whether the judge ruled correctly on what evidence was or was not allowed; or whether the jury instructions or the prosecutors’ final closing arguments were appropriate. 

“But it’s all based on the transcript and the record that’s developed on trial,” Engel says. “The place where I come in — and in-post conviction — is your chance to reinvestigate the case and figure out ‘What did the jury not know?’”

It’s a big task.

It’s also a long one. 

“I think most of these people, I’ve represented for 15 to 20 years,” Engel says, referring to a list of her clients. 

But Engel is quick to credit her team at CDPL — which can include outside mental health experts, forensic experts, and always includes co-counsel, specialized investigators and more.

“My colleagues are so important to me and the idea that you have people who are all committed to the same thing and a lot of the kind of attendant moral principles that would attach yourself to being willing to do death penalty representation, I think creates a real bond with people,” Engel says. 

This team is crucial. 

“Her greatest skill I think is bringing people who are capable into the process and also making sure in a very difficult environment, that she is able to obtain the resources needed to do these cases,” Meltsner says of Engel. 

Sometimes the team finds evidence that wasn’t presented at trial — either because of prosecutorial misconduct or inadequate representation. 

Other times there is jury misconduct — “going to see a pastor is surprisingly common in these cases during evening recess and the sentencing hearing or deliberations,” Engel notes.

And Engel says sometimes the judge can make an error.

But these factors do not necessarily mean an exoneration. 

Engel recalled two clients who were executed; another client was resentenced to life in prison after being sent to death row; another was granted clemency.

“Even if you lose, the case has value,” Engel says. “We’re lifting up the humanity of our clients — we’re making a difference to individual clients. And that’s so important.”

Engel also credited Krasner, who has made no secret about his opposition to the death penalty and his ideals of prison reform.  

“There were several times when we — both in the context of (Gwynn’s) case and in other cases saying these cases wouldn’t have won if they were in another jurisdiction or if Krasner had not been in office,” Engel says. “We would have lost them in federal court, and that would have been the end of it.”

“He embraced this,” Engel continues, noting that Krasner even put out a press release of the Gwynn exoneration. “That’s so unlike anywhere else, where he’s saying I’m proud that we really scrutinize these convictions, I’m proud that I’m willing to take responsibility for making up for something that I think my predecessors did wrong in the past.”

It’s a stance that Engel says is “certainly a long time coming, and I wish it were much more common.”

She notes that Gwynn is the 197th person exonerated from death row since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center’s Innocence Database, a fact that Engel called “sobering” and “appalling.”

And while the death penalty is “dying a slow death,” according to Engel, it still remains on the books. For instance, North Carolina has capital punishment, but has not executed a prisoner for nearly 20 years. 

“People who’ve been at this work for a long time will say there’s such a veneer of legitimacy about our system,” Engel says. “But it’s really such a Wild West kind of way that we do things.”

“Death row cases are supposed to be the ones we treat differently,” Engel continues. “We give defendants two lawyers instead of one, the state’s highest court reviews the case, etc. But the error rate is appalling. If this were any other government program, we would not continue it.”

And while it was certainly a huge accomplishment and an incredible moment to see Gwynn freed from prison, Engel says the day was also, in a way, “bittersweet.”

“When I think about the day he got out, I was thinking this was a very somber day — the idea that somebody would spend 30 years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit was no cause for celebration,” Engel says. “But, of course, it was a very joyous day as well.”

“He’s 54 and I think there’s really a chance for him to have some good things happen in his life,” Engel says of Gwynn. “I feel hopeful for him.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @MoultonCyrus.