News

XmasLightsMaybe it’s the time of year, but it seems that there’s been more than a handful of reports these past few weeks about judges who are taking critical look at how court decisions are impacting their communities.

There’s this story out of South Carolina, where yesterday Judge Carmen Tevis Mullen vacated the 1944 conviction of a black 14-year-old boy charged with allegedly murdering two white girls.

As Reuters reports, George Stinney Jr. was convicted by an all-white jury after a one-day trial and a 10-minute jury deliberation and died soon after in the electric chair.  He was the youngest person executed in the United States in the past century.

Finding that Stinney did not receive a fair trial, Judge Mullen wrote:

From time to time we are called to look back to examine our still-recent history and correct injustice where possible. I can think of no greater injustice than a violation of one’s constitutional rights, which has been proven to me in this case by a preponderance of the evidence standard.

Then there’s this — one judge’s regrets about harsh sentences he was forced to hand down under federal sentencing guidelines.

Recalling how those guidelines came about, U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn spoke to NPR this week as part of that organization’s ongoing look at their impact.

As NPR describes its efforts:

We talked with judges who expressed tearful misgivings about sending people away for the rest of their lives for crimes that involved no violence and a modest amount of drugs. We found a newly released inmate trying to reacquaint herself with her community in the Florida panhandle and rebuild ties with her grieving children after 17 years away from home. And we went inside a medium-security prison in New Jersey to find a lifer who says he deserves another chance. These people acknowledge that they broke the law and accept the need for punishment. But they say their decades-long incarcerations cast a shadow that lingers over their families, damage that far outweighs the wrongs they did to put them in prison.

Here’s what Gleeson had to say about the underpinnings of the guidelines:

This was a different time in our history. Crime rates were way up, there was a lot of violence that was perceived to be associated with crack at the time. People in Congress meant well. I don’t mean to suggest otherwise. But it just turns out that policy is wrong. It was wrong at the time.

 

Commentary

The NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty reports that the number of exonerations have reached a record pace, with North Carolina in its eighth year without executions. However, the death penalty remains a threat to innocent people “sentenced to die on the thinnest of evidence,” many of whom have been incarcerated for more than 30 years before exoneration.

Cross-posted from the NC Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty:

New death sentences in the U.S. reached a 40-year low in 2014, and North Carolina passed its eight year without an execution. But the most surprising statistics in the Death Penalty Information Center’s year-end report were these:

150 innocent people have now been exonerated after being sentenced to die.

Seven innocents were were freed just this year.

—[Read the whole post from NCCADP here]—

Six of the seven men exonerated this year had served 30 years or more in prison. All were sentenced to die on the thinnest of evidence. An Ohio exonoree was convicted 39 years ago, solely on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who later recanted.

In North Carolina, nine death-sentenced men have now been exonerated, DPIC says.

The facts are in: The death penalty is a grave threat to the innocent and cannot continue to masquerade as “justice.”

Commentary

President ObamaMake sure you check out Policy Watch’s main page for the most recent article in the Fitzsimon File, which argues persuasively that President Obama made a bigger impact on North Carolina this year than anyone else, on either side of the political aisle.

On the Republican side, one name was brought up more during the hotly contested U.S. Senate race that dominated the year, than any other and it wasn’t Tillis or Hagan.

Think about it. The Republicans made the election more about Obama than anything happening in North Carolina or anything that Tillis was proposing. They distorted Obama’s record in ad after ad that blasted Democratic Senator Kay Hagan for supporting most of his initiatives. Tillis couldn’t seem to make a public appearance without reminding voters that Hagan voted with Obama “95 percent of the time.”

For progressives, there are so many things Obama did to positively impact the lives of North Carolinians this year.

The national unemployment rate is now below six percent, down significantly from its recession of high of 10 percent. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney pledged on the campaign trail in 2012 to reduce the unemployment rate to below six percent by end of his first four-year-term

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News

saludaThe Southern Environmental Law Center on Thursday announced an agreement in principle with Duke Energy for the utility to remove all of the coal ash at its W.S. Lee facility from the banks of the Saluda River near Greenville and Anderson, South Carolina, to safer dry, lined storage away from the river.

“With this announcement, our advocacy and litigation have obtained commitments from all public utilities in South Carolina to clean up leaking coal ash lagoons on South Carolina’s rivers,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center.  “This is a historic accomplishment for South Carolina’s rivers and clean water.”

Based on the agreement Duke Energy has committed to moving  3.2 million tons of ash in pits along the Saluda River to dry, lined storage away from waterway, including the ash in two leaking lagoons and in an ash storage area near the lagoons.

The W.S. Lee Steam Station, which was retired in November, was Duke Energy’s last remaining coal-fired plant in South Carolina.

In North Carolina, Duke is required (under the Coal Ash Management Act) to clean-up  just four of the 14 coal ash storage sites in the state.  The state’s Coal Ash Management Commission will assess the other ten sites and set timetables for their clean-up.

The Coal Ash Management Commission is scheduled to meet again on January 14th in Raleigh.

Commentary

Sometimes, its hard to figure where the folks on the far right are coming from in their crusade to sell off our public structures to the highest bidder. For some, plain, old-fashioned greed clearly plays a part, but with columns like this recent little doozy from the Pope-Civitas Institute, it’s clear that something else is at work.

And that something is an amazingly warped view of human society.

According to the Pope-Civitas people, the North Carolina Zoo is the “waste of the week.” And, no, it’s not because there’s been some incident of waste or graft; they simply don’t see any public value in the concept of a public zoological park. Here’s how they put it:

“Few would attempt to argue that a core service of state government is to display animals for viewing in our leisure time. The NC Zoo is still another example of something the state compels state taxpayers to subsidize that should instead be financed through voluntary support.”

To which all a body can say in response is: “Says who?”

Who says that it’s not a core service? And more to the point, who says that “to display animals for viewing in our leisure time” is all zoos are about?

Honestly, do these folks pay any attention at all? As even many fourth graders probably understand, there’s a hell of a lot more to zoos and other such institutions than “leisure.” Good lord, the list of important contributions made to human society by zoos — with respect to education, science, research, history, preserving the environment and endangered species, understanding our place on the planet and just plain making life more livable (and in dozens of other areas) — would take all day to spell out.

If anything, we desperately need more public institutions capable of such important accomplishments. What’s next on the Pope-Civitas hit list? Public libraries? Read More