A pending US Supreme Court case could have disastrous consequences for justice and fairness in North Carolina. It could also present our new governor, Beverly Perdue, with one of the greatest challenges of her tenure.
The issue in the case is whether federal courts are required to pay for lawyers in state clemency proceedings. The Court’s decision in the case could coincide with the end of the judicially imposed moratorium on executions in North Carolina. If the case loses, Governor Perdue might find herself confronted with an unprecedented number of clemency decisions to make – just as all of those inmates have lost their attorneys.
Clemency is vitally important because it is the last chance to prevent the execution of an innocent person or someone who for another reason should not be executed. It is a non-legal proceeding that allows the governor to look at issues that might not have been presented in court. Clemency can be granted on the grounds of justice and also on the basis of mercy.
In North Carolina, as in many states, the plea is made by the inmate’s lawyer directly to the governor. If the governor decides to grant clemency, the inmate is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. If not, he is executed. Currently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal court, appoints and pays attorneys to prepare the clemency presentation. There is no state funding for clemency.
In the case before the Court, two former NC governors, Jim Hunt (D) and Jim Martin (R), along with governors from other states, filed a “friends of the court” brief, urging the continued federal funding for attorneys to make clemency pleas.
Both governors granted and denied clemency requests during their tenures. The governors’ brief discusses several cases, including the case of Anson Avery Maynard, to whom Governor Martin granted clemency, based on questions about who actually committed the killing. The brief also emphasizes that there are many issues – beyond guilt or innocence – that deserve full investigation and presentation, and that are worthy of clemency, such as racial bias, mental illness and remorse.
Governor Martin and his staff spent days talking to witnesses, reviewing evidence and deciding whether to grant clemency to Maynard. Given the volume of cases Governor Perdue may face, it is unlikely she will be able to devote a week to each one, but she can still be guided by her predecessors’ call to approach clemency hearings with the utmost seriousness and dedication to fairness. The last thing we’d want to see is the execution of an innocent person because we didn’t have the resources or the time to discover the truth.