Racial Justice Act ‘fix’ would in essence end it

Racial Justice Act ‘fix’ would in essence end it

North Carolina’s prosecutors apparently don’t want to defend their death-penalty decisions against claims of racial prejudice. Simple justice demands otherwise. The General Assembly should leave the state’s Racial Justice Act alone.

The 2009 law allows the use of statistics to demonstrate that racial bias played a significant role in either sentencing or in prosecutors’ decision to seek the death penalty. If a claim is successful, the inmate’s sentence is reduced to life without parole.

A Michigan State University study showed that a North Carolina defendant is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white, and that of 159 people on death row at the time of the study, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color on the jury.

Not surprisingly, almost every African-American on death row is seeking a review. Prosecutors claim, in a letter to the state Senate seeking repeal of the law, that this will clog the court system.

“If you do not address this issue quickly, the criminal justice system will be saddled with litigation that will crush an already under-funded and overburdened system,” wrote Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle, president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys.

The biggest problem yet visible has been caused by the prosecutors themselves. In Cumberland County they tried to stall proceedings by asking that a judge be disqualified because he might be a witness. The judge had nothing to do with the original case. He is, however, an African-American.

House Republicans have tried to undermine the law by changing a Senate-passed bill dealing with synthetic marijuana to instead require that defendants challenging actions under the Racial Justice Act prove discriminatory intent. This would be a virtually insurmountable barrier.

The purpose of the parliamentary maneuver is to get around the rules that only bills already passed in both houses can be considered during the special session at month’s end. “The House is attempting a procedural maneuver to eliminate public debate,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, an architect of the act.

“There is agreement that occasionally race plays a role in sentencing,” House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Chapel Hill, said during a visit to the Citizen-Times editorial board. “(The Racial Justice Act) is an appropriate exercise of caution.”

The Racial Justice Act cannot set anyone free, despite claims made in an incendiary mailer delivered to voters late in the 2010 campaign against then-Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy. Most Death Row inmates were convicted since North Carolina eliminated parole for capital murder in 1994, and even those convicted before 1994 would have to go through a parole hearing before release.

The Senate already has twice refused to vote on the bill, each time sending it to the Judiciary Committee. Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger, R-Eden, doesn’t know if it will come up this month, but “It’s certainly on the radar screen.”

It should stay in committee. North Carolina must not backslide in this important move toward racial justice.

Star News: Marge Ciardella – The true cost of capital punishment

This editorial is an in depth look into the  many costs tax payers, defense attorneys and prosecutors face throughout often long and drawn out North Carolina capital cases.

In a 2009 study by Duke University Professor Phil Cook, the data presented shows that the state could save $11 million annually by repealing the death penalty. Prosecution and court costs are not included in this number. Arguably, that number would double had the prosecutor’s costs, including in-kind costs, been included.

Editorial available here: Marge Ciardella – The true cost of capital punishment.

The full cost of a capital case can be shown only if all costs incurred by both the defense and the prosecution including the prosecution’s in-kind costs, are included in the discussion. Then the public will know the total costs incurred by the prosecutor’s choice in seeking the death penalty, a choice that rarely results in a death sentence.

News & Observer: Another danger in the death penalty

“Put a gun to a man’s head, and he’ll do or say pretty much anything he thinks  will save his life. It’s common sense.

Yet we allow our justice system to do this anytime it pleases. Can’t get your  suspect to confess to murder? Threaten him with lethal injection.

This is what happened to two innocent Asheville men, Kenneth Kagonyera and  Robert Wilcoxson. They confessed to a murder they had no part in because they  were told that a trial might end with the death penalty…”

Full article here: Another danger in the death penalty

Asheville Citizen Times: More important to get justice right than quick.

By WNCDPR Leader Jean Parks,

“I appreciate victims’ rights being brought into the ongoing discussion about the death penalty (“Victims’ rights,” AC-T letters, Sept. 29), however, I challenge the implication that murder victims’ families support the death penalty. Some victims’ families do, but many of us do not. My sister was murdered in Raleigh in 1975. I was relieved at the time that the death penalty was not considered for the defendant. I’m more relieved now because I learned recently the convicted man might be the wrong man. What I need as a victim is that the devastating harm to my sister and her family be recognized, that the right person(s) be identified, held accountable and prevented from killing again, and that the investigation be done and a resolution be reached in a timely way. But it is more important to get it right than to get it quickly. Even if the authorities got the right guy, I would find no peace in another life being ended. I believe in the sanctity of all human lives, even the worst of the worst. It is a true burden to me that many supporters of the death penalty claim execution is necessary for families to feel justice has been done.”

Available here: More important to get justice right than quick

The philosophical underpinning of the death penalty

Here’s a worthwhile article that explores the whole notion of “free will” and retributive justice.

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Morality Without “Free Will”

by Sam Harris

Many people seem to believe that morality depends for its existence on a metaphysical quantity called “free will.” This conviction is occasionally expressed—often with great impatience, smugness, or piety—with the words, “ought implies can.” Like much else in philosophy that is too easily remembered (e.g. “you can’t get an ought from an is.”), this phrase has become an impediment to clear thinking.

In fact, the concept of free will is a non-starter, both philosophically and scientifically. There is simply no description of mental and physical causation that allows for this freedom that we habitually claim for ourselves and ascribe to others. Understanding this would alter our view of morality in some respects, but it wouldn’t destroy the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil.

To read more, click here.

News&Observer: Editorial: Face up to the facts and end the death penalty

Editorial by Dr. Matthew Robinson of Appalachian State University

“Illinois just made history, becoming the 16th state in the United States to outlaw capital punishment. North Carolina should become the 17th state to abolish the death penalty.

What is different in North Carolina? Seven people have been freed from death row here since 1973, ranking the state seventh in the number of errors nationwide (Illinois is ranked second).

Six of the seven men were wrongly convicted after the death penalty was reinstated in 1977 and thus were convicted under the current North Carolina death penalty statute, or “super due process.” Five men were wrongly convicted between 1993 and 1997 and ultimately exonerated between 1999 and 2008.

Serious malfeasance in the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab was also recently discovered, showing flawed blood evidence was used in more than 200 cases. In seven of the cases people were sentenced to death, and three of them were executed.

Stated simply, we make mistakes too. Lots of them.

A study of North Carolina’s death penalty system from 1977 through 2009 found the error rate in the state to be 67 percent, meaning two out of every three death sentences were overturned on appeal. Compare this with the only 20 percent of death sentences that have thus far led to an execution and you understand that the system of capital punishment in the state is broken.

Editorial available here: Face up to the facts and end the death penalty


Winston Salem Journal: Opinion: The presumption of innocence

On Dec. 21, 2003, Willard Brown ended a tragic episode in our community’s history by admitting to the police that he raped and murdered Deborah Sykes in August 1984. He apologized to Sykes’ family and to Darryl Hunt, admitting that Hunt had nothing to do with it.

Since Hunt’s exoneration in February 2004, the Journal has published more than a few letters and had reader responses posted to its website that express an unfortunate sentiment: If Hunt didn’t do this, he did other things in the past or would do things in the future for which he probably deserved to go to prison, keeping our streets safer.”

I might well have agreed — before I started paying close attention. Having moved to Winston-Salem two weeks after Hunt’s first trial in 1985, I did not pay much attention to the coverage of the saga and, if asked, might have repeated what the police and district attorney’s office said repeatedly to the press: There were several people involved in the murder, and Hunt was probably one of them.

After reading Phoebe Zerwick’s series in November 2003 and talking with Larry Little and the Revs. Carlton Eversley and John Mendez, I began to pay more attention. What I have learned subsequent to 2003 has changed my perspective radically.

In 1985, Hunt was offered a $12,000 reward and told he would not be charged in the crime, if he simply said his friend, Sammy Mitchell, did it. He said, “No, not if I have to lie on Sammy to get it.” After his conviction was overturned and before the second trial, the prosecution offered him a plea bargain: Admit to second-degree murder and he could go home that day with the five years he had already served. Hunt said, “No.” When asked why, he gave two reasons: He wouldn’t bear false witness, and Sykes’ family deserved to know who killed her. Had Hunt agreed to either of those offers, justice would never have been served. Justice requires that the right person be convicted and incarcerated, not simply someone against whom a case can be made.

In 1994, Mark Rabil and Hunt’s defense team, over the objections of the prosecution, petitioned that DNA analysis of the rape kit be conducted. That analysis revealed that the three suspects implicated in the state’s theory of the crime — Hunt, Mitchell and Johnny Gray — could not have been the rapist. Knowing then that the rapist was not in custody, neither the Winston-Salem Police Department nor the district attorney’s office reopened the investigation to identify Sykes’ brutal murderer.

Rabil, however, kept filing appeals and, finally, in spring 2003, filed a motion to test the DNA evidence in a North Carolina database of violent, convicted felons. That testing led to the identification of Willard Brown as the murderer.

Darryl Hunt since exoneration

Fortunately, or providentially — as I believe — the case was solved, but not without a very high price and not without the courage, persistence and integrity of both Hunt and Rabil and, along with them, a number of other community advocates for justice, who would not give up on the truth.

So, a decision to pay more careful attention and to develop relationships with some of those involved in these events taught me several lessons. In order to preserve a cardinal principle of our criminal-justice system — the presumption of innocence — we, in the community and in the jury box, must listen and make informed judgments, not simply hold opinions based on those of others. We must carefully distinguish any particular person, along with his or her past — real or perceived — from the crime with which they are charged and wait for evidence, and then weigh its credibility without prejudice.

As for the opinion that our streets would be safer without Hunt among us, I couldn’t disagree more. Since his release, Hunt has created the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice that educates the public about needed reforms in areas such as more effective eyewitness identification procedures, reviews innocence claims of inmates and helps ex-offenders break the cycle of recidivism. He also serves on the board of directors of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence; as chair, Client Policy Group, National Legal Aid Defenders Association (Washington, D.C.); and on the board of the North Carolina Prison Legal Services.

I am very glad that Hunt is back in our community and am honored to work with him and others in these community efforts, including pursuing truth and justice in the Silk Plant Forest Case. If the enrichment that comes from paying closer attention and developing new relationships appeals to you, visit the website http://darrylhuntproject.org/ and join us.

Winston Salem Journal: Editorial: The Beverly Hillbillies and racial justice

Guest columnist: Mark Rabil

“I was a little nervous the first time I went to see Darryl Hunt in the county jail in 1984. Here was this black guy charged with the most horrible murder in recent memory, right in downtown Winston-Salem, not far from my apartment in the West End. I assumed, wrongly, that he must have had something to do with it. So I asked him on that first visit, “Where were you on the morning of August 10?” Darryl told me that he spent the night at a house on Dunleith Street, woke up, watched “The Beverly Hillbillies” as he did every morning, and then went to court with his friend Sammy. I thought to myself, “What kind of black kid is this, watching ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’? Shouldn’t he be watching shows for black people?” It took me years to realize my bias. Funny is funny, no matter whether you’re black or white. I learned that Darryl and I had the same color-blind life goals, “to live a decent life”: to have a healthy family, work hard at a good job, retire, sit on the porch with our big dog and watch the grandchildren throw dirt clods at our old pickup truck. Now that Darryl is out, he still watches old shows, like “Bonanza.” He was one of the few people who read my last guest column who had seen the episode about Hop Sing using fingerprints to save Little Joe.”

Full editorial here: The Beverly Hillbillies and racial justice.

Winston Salem Journal: Editorial: Race should play no role in ultimate punishment

“Judge William Z. Wood’s affirmation last week of the state’s new Racial Justice Act will put him in the law books. Although his decision in Forsyth County Superior Court is being criticized by many and the matter may well be appealed, we believe that the decision was courageous and just.

Wood ruled that the act is constitutional, the Journal’s Michael Hewlett reported, rejecting arguments from Forsyth County prosecutors that the law is too vague and ambiguous. He considered two county cases that involve men on death row, Carl Stephen Moseley and Errol Duke Moses.

The act allows defense lawyers to argue racial bias in the pursuit or imposition of the death penalty. Judicial rulings of racial bias would not free those already convicted but would convert their death sentences to ones of life in prison.

For too long, who gets the death penalty in this state has been tightly bound to race. Yes, we’re past the bad old days when far more blacks were executed than whites. But racial makeup of juries still makes a big difference. In Forsyth County, 58 percent of death-row inmates were sentenced by juries with only one person of color or none.”

“So yes, as counter-intuitive as it is, the act does allow a white defendant such as Timothy Hartford, the brutal slayer of the Meals-on-Wheels server Anne Magness and her recipient, Bob Denning, who were both white, to argue bias under the Racial Justice Act. David Hall, one of the top lieutenants in the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office, argued before Wood that “It is an insult that Timothy Hartford and white defendants who have been convicted of killing white victims can seek relief under this statute. It is, frankly, obscene to use it in this fashion.”

But the statistics leave room for attorneys to argue that white life is more valuable than black life, whether the killer is black or white, at least if the value is judged by the punishment. That said, we trust that judges will weed out the frivolous appeals from the credible ones. Even as that happens, the Racial Justice Act will create more work for prosecutors. But it’s crucial work to ensure that justice has been done.

We realize that a new wave of prosecutors in our state, ones untied to past prejudices — including Forsyth District Attorney Jim O’Neill — rightly resent the implication that the act paints them as racist. But the numbers say that our judges should give these statistics a hard look before imposing the ultimate punishment in the name of the state — each and every one of us.”

Full editorial here: Race should play no role in ultimate punishment

Winston Salem Journal: Editorial: Life without parole is a viable alternative

First post of the new year and it’s a good one… 

By John Railey

“Ricky Sanderson was a murderer who should have spent the rest of his life in a prison cell, alone with thoughts about the 16-year-old girl he stabbed to death in Davidson County in 1985 and buried in a shallow grave.

But Sanderson, who claimed to be a born-again Christian, said during one of my numerous interviews with him at Central Prison that he deserved to die. He was 38, paunchy and gray-haired, and he stared through flat hazel eyes as he talked. He kidnapped Suzi Holliman from her home. “I remember her last words were that she just wanted to go home,” he said. “I think she knew that wasn’t going to happen.”

Sanderson was executed in 1998 for the slaying of Suzi, the daughter of former state Rep. Hugh Holliman of Lexington, who lost his seat in the November election.

As the debate over North Carolina’s death penalty again heats up, I’ve been thinking about the Sanderson case and all the other death-penalty cases I’ve written about since I entered this business in 1985, as well as the murder cases that should have been death-penalty ones but weren’t. I’ve thought about all the loved ones of both the victims and the killers I’ve interviewed and their haunting stories. I’ve thought about my visits to Death Row in Raleigh’s Central Prison.

And I keep coming back to the same conclusion: Life without parole, which this state has, is a brutal but appropriate punishment because it leaves killers to confront their guilt for the rest of their natural days in a cage. And the death penalty, at least as it’s administered by the state of North Carolina — which means each and every one of us — is an arbitrary crap shoot.”

More Here «Life without parole is a viable alternative