Dec. 4 2011
Last week the legislature met for one day (with two skeleton sessions where only a few people attended to open and close the session). The Senate passed a bill sent over from the House that essentially repealed the Racial Justice Act (RJA). The RJA was passed last term to allow death row inmates to challenge their sentences when their trial might have been tainted by racial bias. It let them use historical statistics to show racial bias may have existed because no or few persons of color were on their jury. A study by the University of Michigan Law School showed that blacks were rejected from the jury by prosecutors by a two to one ratio. The new bill requires the inmate to show that the prosecutor acted in a racially biased way intentionally when they removed jurors of color. That is, of course, impossible to prove without a “smoking gun” statement by the prosecutor.
I pointed out in my remarks that North Carolina has long been known for its progressive measures. After the Senate passed the moratorium on the death penalty, which didn’t pass the House, the legislature prohibited the execution of the mentally retarded. The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld this ban, calling it “the evolving standard of decency” and pointed to states passing the measure, including North Carolina. In order to assure fairness in meeting out the death penalty, the legislature also passed requirements including experts for the defense, two experienced defense attorneys, all evidence over to the defense by the prosecution and allowed the District Attorneys’ discretion to not seek the death penalty but rather life without parole. As a result, death penalties have plummeted. We hope next May to pass a bill that will prohibit the execution (not the trial, conviction and sentencing) of the mentally ill who would get a life imprisonment without possibility of parole
The opposition of the District Attorneys to each of these measures has been significant. But the requirements have worked well to provide fairness and prevent the miscarriage of justice, such as the seven innocent people who were released from death row after wrongful convictions. Do we know how many innocent people were put to death in the past? One of the facts about the death penalty is that it costs the state millions of dollars to seat a jury, try, sentence and appeal each case. It also ties up courts for months, slowing down the other cases that need to be heard. This often keeps those waiting trial in jails for months, costing the counties millions.
The session also produced a minor, non-controversial bill that allows all breweries to have on-site beer tastings. Prior to this bill, tastings were limited to North Carolina breweries, but this expands it to out of state, unique, small breweries to share their fare with customers as well.
A broad coalition of citizens from across North Carolina filed a lawsuit last week challenging the constitutionality of the legislative and congressional redistricting plans passed by the General Assembly earlier this year. The suit challenges the maps on a number of grounds, including violation of voters’ rights regarding racial segregation and the excessive and illegal division of counties and precincts.
Under the Republican-passed maps, about half of the African-Americans in the state will be packed into fewer districts which diminishes African-American influence outside of the districts, effecting elections, the lawsuit contends.
The State House redistricting plan divides 49 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, while the State Senate plan splits 19 counties, despite provisions in the North Carolina Constitution requiring counties to remain whole to the greatest extent possible. Forty counties were arbitrarily split in the congressional map. Additionally, 395 precincts (containing nearly 1.9 million people) at the State House level and 257 precincts (containing 1.3 million people) at the State Senate level were split. This splitting of precincts often leads to voter confusion, lower voter turnout and higher election costs.
Under North Carolina law, the lawsuit will be tried before a three-judge panel comprised of one Superior Court judge from Wake County, one from Eastern North Carolina and one from Western North Carolina, selected by The Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Any appeal of the panel’s decision would go directly to the NC Supreme Court.
On the Occupy scene, the Chapel Hill Friends Meeting provided Thanksgiving dinner for the Chapel Hill group. The homeless have, of course, found Occupy, so presumably some of them enjoyed it too. At NC State, the CEO of Wells Fargo, newly arrived in North Carolina having bought our historic Wachovia Bank, had his speech interrupted by various students and Occupiers. I wrote him a letter suggesting the protesters have a valid message and that he could take an important step by reducing his $18.9 million compensation to no more than 100 times his lowest paid worker. Japan’s ratio is 12:1 and after the U.S., the highest is Venezuela’s at 50:1; the U.S.’s ratio is a startling 475:1. He could also set a policy to only award bonuses for stellar performance (as opposed to driving the economic bus into the ditch and ruining the lives of families).
I had a lovely Thanksgiving with my family, including the Oregon branch with my seven- and ten-year-old grandchildren. I hope you also had a good holiday.