Commentary

Experts call on the governor to address criminal justice wrongs

James E. Coleman, Jr. (Photos: Duke Law)

Theresa Newman 

Jamie Lau 

In case you missed it earlier this week, Raleigh’s News & Observer published a strong op-ed by three members of the faculty at the Duke Law Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility at Duke University School of Law.

In “On clemency, NC governor’s inaction speaks louder than words,” Jamie Lau, Theresa Newman and James E. Coleman, Jr. express their deep frustration and disappointment that the Cooper administration has yet to “[grant] clemency to a single person, which includes sentence commutations and pardons of forgiveness or innocence.” Unless he takes such action soon, they note, he would be the first North Carolina governor in more than four decades to fail to take such action. As the authors explain:

“Clemency represents the state’s opportunity to show mercy or to correct past injustices. The 30,000 incarcerated people in North Carolina include many individuals worthy of consideration, including Ronnie Long. Long is a client of Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which we direct. He is a Black man who has served 44 years in prison after being convicted of raping a white woman by an all-white jury in a trial that involved significant misconduct. Long has always maintained his innocence and refused pre-trial plea offers that would have had him home in a few years.

Long is just one example. Since January, we have worked with partner organizations to identify incarcerated people who clearly demonstrate rehabilitation. We interviewed people incarcerated who admit their guilt, are remorseful, and have spent decades trying to improve themselves and atone for past wrongdoings. Some have degrees and technical certificates, and many hold jobs outside prison that put them in contact with the community. Many have had no disciplinary infractions during their incarceration. In short, these people were worthy of the governor’s consideration even before the pandemic created an urgency to reduce prison populations to protect against the spread of COVID-19.”

Not only is there a worthy pool of individuals deserving of clemency, say the authors, the governor also needs to do a better job of making public the names of the individuals seeking such an action. At present, the list is not being made public.

The  bottom line: Gov. Cooper has taken several positive steps during his first term in addressing the impacts of racism and injustice in our state (click here to see a very recent example), but the authors make a strong case that his efforts in that area need to expand dramatically and ASAP to embrace the clemency process.

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