News

House Democrats want Republicans to set aside differences to attack systemic racism

House Democrats held a remote press conference Friday to address systemic racism.

Democratic lawmakers on Friday called on Republican colleagues to set aside partisanship to address systemic racism in the judicial system and stubborn health, educational and economic disparities that cripple African American communities.

“Education ought not to be partisan as we all ought to want all of our students to be educated,” said House Democratic Whip Amos Quick, (D-Guilford).

Quick said the American promise is that if you get a good education and apply yourself, then you will have success.

“However, this promise has been rendered a cruel hoax for too many bright African American students who endure substandard education through no fault of their own,” Quick said. “Dilapidated buildings and funding formula tricks make it still possible to go into any city or town in North Carolina and visibly identify schools that are mostly populated by African American students.”

Quick noted that African Americans are 22 % of the state’s population but make up 35 % of COVID-19 related deaths.

He said we can no longer tolerate health care disparities.

“Why should skin color and zip code determine quality of life and even the length of life for many of our citizens,” Quick said. “It cannot be acceptable any longer that African American North Carolinians have to endure an absence of quality health care and nearby facilities.”

Quick made his comments during a remote news conference.

Lawmakers also honored the memory of George Floyd, the Minnesota man who died in police custody a week ago. Floyd was born in North Carolina. A memorial service is scheduled for Saturday in Hoke County.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson, (D-Wake), called Floyd’s death a national tragedy that highlights the disparate treatment blacks receive at the hand of law enforcement officers.

“Sixteen times he said he could not breathe, and no one listened,” Jackson said.

A chilling video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee planted lethally on Floyd’s neck sparked outrage across the nation and throughout the world.

Chauvin has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

Three other officers involved in the incident were arrested and charged Wednesday. Officers Tou Thao, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng each face charges of aiding and abetting second-degree unintentional murder, as well as aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

“Of course, we cannot bring Mr. Floyd back but today we are here to listen,” Jackson said. “We’re here to honor his life and the lives of so many African Americans who lives were damaged, destroyed or lost before his.”

Jackson said Democratic lawmakers want to know how to better serve African Americans and how to ensure the American promise is extended to every African American child.

Rep. Robert Reives, (D-Chatham), a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, said citizens must have faith in the judicial system.

“Nothing is more important than believing in your justice system when it comes down to law enforcement,” Reives said.

He called on cities and counties to create “meaningful citizen review commission” to build trust with citizens.

“Each locality has a different need when it comes to that,” Reives said. “What’s needed in Charlotte for a review commission is different than what we’ll need here in Siler City, in Chatham County.”

He said there’s a lot of emphasis on training law enforcement officer but others in the judicial system need to better understand how their work impacts black communities.

“Think about what it means with our judges, with our magistrates, with our prosecutors, with our defense attorney,” Reives said. “All of us need training on how the judicial system affects African Americans and what we can do to lessen that affect and equalize that affect.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Yvonne Holley, (D-Wake), addressed housing and economic disparities.

She noted that many frontline workers are earning less than minimum wage while putting their lives on the line during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When you realize this and look at this, people are putting their lives at risk for us and they’re not making enough to live off of, much less support their families,” Holley said.

She said it’s morally wrong to pay black women less than white males for the same work.

“Unequal pay means less food on the table, missed health care appointments, fewer educational opportunities, fewer trips to the museum and poor access tp technology and broad band,” Holley said.

She said it’s no longer possible for a person making minimum wage to make ends meet.

“Minimum wage will not support one person even in the least expensive part of the state,” Holley said. “And year after year, minimum wage stays flat, while prices of everything goes up.”

She said African American workers also have less access to paid leave than their white counterparts.

“They cannot miss work for being sick,” she said. “They have to show up sick or leave their newborn children. The result is a less healthy community and a less well-off community.”

Holley also criticized the state’s unemployment policy.

“North Carolina is the worst state in the country to be an unemployed worker,” Holley said. “Our compensation levels are low, and we have an extremely short, 12-week duration of benefit period.”

Holley said the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the black community in North Carolina especially hard.

She has filed bills to spend $100 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money to help renters avoid eviction and $100 million to prevent foreclosures.

In addition, Holley said North Carolina must make a substantial investment in affordable housing, particularly in programs such as the Housing Trust Fund, which support the preservation and production of affordable housing and work to increase opportunities for families and individuals to access affordable homes.

Friday’s press conference came a day after Gov. Roy Cooper created a task force to address the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 is having on communities of color.

The task force honors Andrea Harris, who co-founded the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development in 1986. She served as president of the Durham-based organization for more than two decades. Harris died last month.

The Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental, and Health Equity Task Force will address systematic disparities in North Carolina.

“I’m proud to have signed Executive Order No. 143 to address disparities in communities of color that are being highlighted and intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cooper said in a statement. “This virus is exploiting those inequalities and it’s up to us to do something about it.”

COVID-19, News

Cooper vetoes legislation to re-open bars

Governor Roy Cooper vetoed legislation Friday that would have allowed bars to re-open and begin serving beverages outdoors.

While supporters said the temporary measure could be a financial lifeline for bar owners, the governor rejected a provision in the House Bill 536 that would override his authority to close the establishments  quickly if there’s another spike in coronavirus cases.

“State and local government leaders must be able to act quickly during the COVID-19 emergency to prevent a surge in cases that could overwhelm hospitals and harm the public,” explained Cooper in a press release.”House Bill 536 would limit the ability of leaders to respond quickly to COVID-19 and hamper the health and safety of every North Carolinian.”

The governor’s veto came hours after the state Department of Health and Human Services announced another 1,289 new cases of COVID-19 and 719 hospitalization, a new high for the state.

The NC Bar & Tavern Association filed suit on Thursday seeking to re-open bars to the public sooner than the phased-in approach proposed by the Cooper administration.

News

Wake County activist arrested hours after testifying at virtual Raleigh city council meeting

A Wake County activist and participant in recent Raleigh protests against police misconduct was arrested early this morning on charges of failing to return a rental car and damage to the vehicle, hours after speaking at a Raleigh City Council meeting set up specifically to listen to community concerns.

Conrad James, the president of a Raleigh-based “millennial think tank” called Living Ultra-Violet, told council members at the meeting that he would be delivering a class-action lawsuit to the City Council for violating the Geneva Convention and committing war crimes for using tear gas against peaceful protesters.

The meeting began at 7 p.m. and lasted almost three hours, with multiple community members calling to defund the police and for Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin and Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown to resign, among other demands. James spoke at around 8:45 p.m., a little under two hours after the meeting began.

According to a Facebook post by James, law enforcement officers came to his home in the southern Wake County community of Willow Spring around 3 a.m., arrested him, and set his court date for 9 a.m.

One of James’ Facebook friends offered this description of the arrest:

“Last night, my friend Conrad James called in to the City of Raleigh livestream and revealed to them that he was working on a class action lawsuit on behalf of Raleigh citizens against the RPD.

At 0300 this morning, they raided his house, refused to show a warrant, and arrested him. His court appearance was then set a mere six hours later at 0900, making it difficult for anyone to get there to help/support him.”

Wake County arrest records indicate that it was Wake County Sheriff’s officers who took James into custody and that the event took place at 2:15 a.m. This is the notation on Raleigh/Wake City-County Bureau of Identification (CCBI) website:

“JAMES,CONRAD PAUL I
Arr. Agency: WAKE COUNTY SHERIFF
DOA: 06-05-2020 02:15:00
CHARGE: FAIL RETURN HIRED MV >$4000″
And this is from an email from Susan Weis, Communications Director for the Town of Fuquay-Varina sent in response to an inquiry from Policy Watch:

“Public Record:

Time/Date Reported:  5/21/2020 @ 1553 hours
Incident/Offense:  Failure to Return Motor Vehicle – Felony
Location:  2908 N. Main St.
Victim: Enterprise – 2908 N. Main St.
Suspect: Conrad Paul James, age 27 of Willow Spring, NC
The branch manager of Enterprise reported that a rental vehicle, a 2020 gray Nissan Versa, was not returned by 4/21/2020 as rented to the suspect, Conrad Paul James.  The vehicle was rented on 4/14/2020.  The manager reported that he had made multiple attempts to contact with Mr. James and mailed a letter to Mr. James to return the vehicle.  It was reported that Mr. James stated he had lost the keys in Alabama and could not return the vehicle.  The manager reported the incident to the police department requesting an investigation to to pursue criminal charges.   Pursuant to an investigation, a warrant was obtained for Conrad James for Felony Failure to Return Motor Vehicle. The vehicle was located in Cary and the branch manager requested additional charges for damage to the vehicle.  Pursuant to the investigation, an additional warrant was obtained for misdemeanor injury to personal property.
The warrants were served by the Wake County Sheriff’s Office last night.”

James reported on Facebook today that:

“They dropped the motor vehicle charge at the first appearance thing today it is now just misdeamenor (sic) 1 injury to personal property”

The email from Fuquay-Varina does not mention why the Wake County Sheriff’s Office waited two weeks after the complaint from Enterprise was filed on May 21 to arrest James or why officers chose to carry out the warrant in the middle of the night.

James is now out on bond. His next court date is set for June 25.

Environment

DEQ approves Wake Stone mining company’s proposed bridge over Crabtree Creek

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has authorized a buffer request by Wake Stone Corporation for the proposed construction of a bridge over Crabtree Creek.

The bridge would be part of a controversial quarry adjacent to Umstead State Park, one of the area’s most popular recreational destinations.

DEQ approved the bridge under the Neuse Buffer rules. A buffer authorization allows for impacts within a North Carolina protected riparian buffer. There are no direct stream or wetland impacts associated with the bridge construction.

However, Wake Stone can’t begin construction unless it receives additional permits from the state and county. NCDEQ is still evaluating the mining permit. The Wake County Planning Department would have to issue a building permit, and the county’s Environmental Services would need to conduct a flood study.

Policy Watch reported last month that Wake Stone, the company behind a controversial quarry expansion next to Umstead State Park, had significantly changed its mining permit application to include a bridge over Crabtree Creek, a troubled tributary of the Neuse River.

The plan was included in a modified application that Wake Stone submitted to the NC Department of Environmental Quality on April 8.

According to the company, the bridge would be built over a portion of the creek that lies within the proposed new mining boundary. It would be used to truck “overburden” — clear-cut trees, soil and other unusable material — from the existing Wake Stone operation to a storage pit at the proposed mine, which has yet to be permitted. 

In its application to DEQ’s Division of Energy, Mining and Land Resources, the company claims bridge construction and other mining activities won’t harm the creek “for the foreseeable future.”

The buffer authorization is limited to the riparian buffer impacts associated with the proposed bridge only and is contingent upon approval of Wake Stone’s request for a modified mining permit, which is still in process with the DEMLR.  Issuance of the buffer authorization does not indicate the outcome of the mining permit review process, according to DEQ.

DEQ has scheduled a virtual public hearing on the mining permit for Tuesday, June 23, at 6 p.m.

Courts & the Law, News

NC Supreme Court: Racial Justice Act repeal cannot be applied retroactively

Over 100 people incarcerated on death row who sought relief from the now-repealed Racial Justice Act (RJA) for racial discrimination during their trials can have their day in court, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In an 80-page 6-1 opinion released Friday, with lone Republican Justice Paul Newby dissenting, the high court ruled that the repeal of the RJA cannot be applied retroactively to the cases that were pending.

The law, for a brief time, allowed individuals sentenced to death to seek sentences of life without parole if they could prove racial bias or discrimination was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty in their case.

At the time of the repeal in 2013, about 130 petitions were pending for relief under the RJA — roughly 90% of death row cases at that time. After the repeal, those individuals with pending motions were no longer permitted to move forward with their discrimination claims, including Andrew Darrin Ramseur, whose case is now the basis for the Supreme Court’s landmark opinion.

A Black man, Ramseur was found guilty by an all-white jury in Iredell County on two counts of first-degree murder of two white people and one count of robbery with a dangerous weapon. He alleged in his appeal to the high court that the likelihood of a death sentence in his case was greater because of substantial pre-trial publicity and public comments. These include the distribution to media outlets of surveillance footage of the crime, inflammatory media coverage of the case, and the prevalence of overtly racist comments and discussion on community internet blogs and websites.

A trial court rendered Ramseur’s pending claims void after the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. It and dismissed his claims without hearing evidence of the racial bias and discrimination present at his trial.

Justice Anita Earls wrote the opinion in the case, which holds that applying the repeal retroactively violates the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws, or laws that change the legal consequences of actions that were committed before the enactment of the law.

Earls writes that she and concurring justices express no opinion on the ultimate merits of Ramseur’s RJA claims, nor those of any other capital defendant, and leaves those issues to the trial courts to adjudicate. “We note that our analysis under the Ex Post Facto Clauses of the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions addresses a question purely of law and applies equally to anyone in the same circumstances as defendant — specifically, any capital defendant who filed a motion for appropriate relief under the Original RJA,” the opinion states. “With respect to this class of individuals, the RJA Repeal cannot, consistent with constitutional guarantees, retroactively apply to void their pending RJA claims.”

The opinion does state that the trial court in Ramseur “at a minimum erred as a threshold matter in not conducting an evidentiary hearing on defendant’s claims.” Ramseur’s claims are sufficient under the RJA to trigger an evidentiary hearing, it states.

Earls also authored a similar opinion Friday in another pending RJA case, State v. Rayford Lewis Burke. That was a 5-1 opinion, with Justice Sam Ervin recused and Newby dissenting.

Burke was convicted in Iredell County of one count of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1993. A trial court also denied his RJA claims without an evidentiary hearing — an error, according to the high court’s opinion. Newby, in his dissent in Ramseur, which he also cites in Burke, stated the repeal plainly does not qualify as an ex post facto law because it left the defendant in “precisely the same legal situation” as the one he occupied at the time of his trial.

“When properly viewed, the General Assembly intended the RJA to provide a procedural mechanism by which a defendant could collaterally attack a capital sentence,” the Ramseur dissent states. “The General Assembly did not intend to make a substantive change to the death penalty sentencing law. As such, the General Assembly had the constitutional authority subsequently to amend it and repeal it.”

There are four RJA cases still pending at the high court that involve individuals who received relief under the RJA — they were granted life without parole but then sent back to death row after the repeal of the law. Read the full opinions from the high court below.

This is a breaking news story and could be updated throughout the day.

Disclosure: Rick Glazier, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, the parent organization of NC Policy Watch, was involved in legislative efforts to resist the repeal of the RJA while a member of the state House and the successful litigation described in this story.

State v Ramseur Opinion (Text)

State v Burke opinion (Text)