Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Two of ‘Exonerated Five’ share stories of injustice in criminal system to heal, help others

Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana, two members of the “Exonerated Five,” spoke to Duke Law School students Tuesday about experiencing injustice in the criminal system. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

If North Carolina leaders are serious about addressing racism in the criminal justice system, they should start by putting themselves in the shoes of the accused.

That was the advice this week from Yusef Salaam, who served almost seven years in prison for a rape and assault he didn’t commit.

“If we can look at somebody as a human being, it changes the dynamic and speaks to them really in a different way,” he said. “That’s the basic and most easiest thing that can be done.”

Salaam spoke at Duke Law School this week along with Raymond Santana, both formerly referred to as part of the “Central Park five,” and now referred to as the “exonerated five.” Their stories of surviving the injustice of the criminal justice system were featured in a 2012 Ken Burns documentary and a Netflix miniseries directed by Ava DuVernay called “When They See Us” that was released this year.

Salaam, Santana, Anton McCray, Kevin Richardson and Kevin Wise were teenagers when they were arrested in 1989 in connection with the attack of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old jogger was brutally assaulted and raped in New York’s Central Park.

They were railroaded by the police and depicted as monsters by the media. They spoke to Duke Law students about how racial bias tainted their case and about the flaws in the system that led to their false confessions, including police coercion and the vulnerability and pressure of being juveniles in interrogations.

“That playing field was uneven going on,” said Santana, who gets asked a lot how he could have confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. “It sets the stage for a false confession to take place.”

Santana was 15 years old when he was interrogated for hours by police about Meili’s attack. He said he didn’t know what Miranda rights were, and the good cop/bad cop tactic detectives used created a pressure that forced him to agree to facts he didn’t even know about.

The teenagers didn’t even write their own confessions – they signed a document written formally by police.

“The injustice here is that we thought people would see that, that society as a whole would be like, ‘wait a minute, something doesn’t make sense,” Santana said. “But they didn’t.”

The men were exonerated in 2002 through DNA evidence. They won a civil rights settlement years later against New York.

A Duke student asks members of the “Exonerated Five” to talk about how they take care of themselves after experiencing trauma in the criminal justice system. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

One of the students at Duke asked Salaam and Santana how they carry forward and how they take care of themselves and their families after experience such great injustice.

Mental health and wellness is important to them, but so is telling their story to make sure it doesn’t happen to future generations.

“We know that we have a service to fill, a duty,” Santana said.

They still deal with the trauma, he added, and there isn’t a day that goes by that they don’t think about what happened to them, but part of healing is sharing their experience.

Salaam said he wouldn’t change what happened because it made them into the men they were supposed to be.

“It is in those dark times that we find strength,” he said.

Their visit to Duke was particularly poignant since the North Carolina Supreme Court considered a handful of death penalty cases the week before in which the defendants proved racial injustice played a part in their sentencing.

Santana and Salaam encouraged the room full of Duke legal hopefuls to just do their job when they eventually take their places in the criminal justice system. They told them not to cheat or cut corners to get to a bottom line – that’s how mistakes happen.

At the same gathering, officials announced the creation of a new center based at Duke Law School that will apply legal and scientific research to reforming the criminal justice system.

The Duke Center for Science and Justice will be led by Brandon Garrett, the L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law and a leading scholar of criminal procedure, scientific evidence and wrongful convictions. He also represented Salaam when he was a new lawyer, and he helped with the lawsuits that the Exonerated Five filed against New York City after their convictions were overturned.

Kerry Abrams, James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law and Professor of Law (and Garrett’s wife), made the announcement about the new center, which is supported by a $4.7 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.

“There couldn’t be a better place to host a major center for the study of the role of science in the criminal justice reform system,” she said. “This center will build on our existing strengths to create new opportunities for students and faculty across the university to study and improve accuracy of evidence in criminal cases, the role of risk in criminal outcomes and the treatment needs of individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems as an alternative to arrest and incarceration.”

She said the Center will allow Duke to extend its reach beyond the law school to collaborate with faculty and students in medicine, public policy and arts and science.

Yusef Salaam meets with Duke Law students after speaking about his experience being wrongfully accused of rape and assault. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

First redistricting committee meeting set for Monday after court orders new districts

The North Carolina House Redistricting Committee will meet for the first time Monday following a court order to draw new legislative districts within two weeks.

In a significant ruling Tuesday, a three-judge panel from Wake County Superior Court found that Republican lawmakers unconstitutionally used partisan gerrymandering during the past round of redistricting to severely disadvantage Democratic voters. There was a two-week trial in July in the Common Cause v. Lewis case,

The remedial process, which is expected to begin at the scheduled committee meeting, will have to be done in “full public view,” according to the ruling. It also outlines that lawmakers use only traditional redistricting criteria and bans the use of any election data. Lawmakers may not use the unconstitutional maps as a starting point.

The judges did not authorize a stay pending any appeal in the case, but Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger indicated in a news release yesterday that there would not be more litigation forthcoming.

It’s not clear exactly why Republican lawmakers might not appeal the case — Berger just said they want to put this issue to rest once and for all — but Rick Hasen, Professor of Law and Political Science at UC Irvine, speculated about four possibilities.

  1. They know they will lose in the Democratic-dominated state supreme court, and there is no viable path to federal court review.
  2. They would rather NOT get a holding from the state Supreme Court (this was a three-judge trial court ruling), which would have greater precedential value.
  3. They hope they would have a better chance to have their “nonpartisan” map accepted by the Supreme Court if they throw in the towel (that is, they are trying to avoid a worse court-drawn map).
  4. They will use this ruling to run against the Supreme Court and try for a state constitutional amendment to give them the right to engage in partisan gerrymandering after the 2020 census.

Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore and redistricting leaders Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) and Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) never responded to an email seeking comment Tuesday from NC Policy Watch.

There’s not yet an agenda for the Monday meeting, which will be held at 1 p.m. in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building. It will be open to the public.

The court plans to appoint a “referee” in the case to help it review the new maps the General Assembly enacts and to draw alternative ones if necessary. All parties in Common Cause v. Lewis have until Friday to submit their recommended referees and qualifications to the court for appointment.

Meanwhile, Democrats and voting rights advocates from across the country continue to celebrate the ruling — which has been described as a blueprint for other states to consider reviewing their own redistricting processes. Former President Barack Obama on Twitter called the ruling a big win for North Carolina and everyone.

“Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,” he wrote. “This win is proof that change is always within our reach, on gerrymandering, voting rights, and much more.”

Obama announced a new initiative last week, Redistricting U, to train and organize volunteers across the country in an effort to end partisan gerrymandering. North Carolina was identified as one of 10 priority states where the initiative could have an impact.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC redistricting win: Court strikes down partisan legislative maps, orders new ones in 2 weeks

North Carolina Republican legislative leaders used partisan intent with surgical precision to carefully craft maps that unconstitutionally diluted Democrats’ collective voting strength, according to a three-judge panel ruling striking down the 2017 House and Senate maps.

“In other words, the Court finds that in many election environments, it is the carefully crafted maps, and not the will of the voters, that dictate the election outcomes in a significant number of legislative districts and, ultimately, the majority control of the General Assembly,” the 357-page document states.

Lawmakers have two weeks, until Sept. 18, to draw new House and Senate districts in “full public view” without the use of election data. They must use traditional redistricting criteria, may not use the unconstitutional maps as a starting point and have to seek court approval if they want to retain anyone other than legislative employees to help with the drafting of the remedial maps, according to the ruling.

The Common Cause v. Lewis ruling was unanimous. Republican legislative leaders released a statement criticizing the ruling, but said they would not appeal and planned to move forward with drawing new maps as ordered.

“This case is the next step in Eric Holder’s drive to use judges to create a Democratic majority,” states the release from Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s Office. “Thwarted at the U.S. Supreme Court, Holder has turned to state courts with Democratic majorities to, in his own words, ‘favorably position Democrats’ to game the redistricting process.”

Holder is a former U.S. Attorney General who chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

“We disagree with the court’s ruling as it contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us,” the release continues. “Nearly a decade of relentless litigation has strained the legitimacy of this state’s institutions, and the relationship between its leaders, to the breaking point. It’s time to move on.”

The court, on its own motion, denied staying the remedial process pending any appeal. It will also use a referee to help evaluate the legislature’s remedial maps and draw new ones if necessary.

“The conclusions of this Court today reflect the unanimous and best efforts of the undersigned trial judges — each hailing from different geographic regions and each with differing ideological and political outlooks — to apply core constitutional principles to this complex and divisive topic,” the document states.

The judges who presided in the case are registered Democrats Alma Hinton and Paul Ridgeway and registered Republican Joseph Crosswhite.

They outlined a “dizzying succession of litigation” voters have been subjected to since 2011 over North Carolina’s legislative and Congressional districts in state and federal courts. Today, they wrote, marks the third time the same trial court has entered judgment. Two times, the North Carolina Supreme Court has spoken. Eight times, the United States Supreme Court has ruled.

Partisan intent predominated in the drawing of the 2017 legislative maps, and the court said it violated these parts of the state Constitution: the equal protection clause, the right to associate, to speak freely through voting, and to participate in free elections.

It is not the province of the Court to pick political winners or losers,” the ruling states. “It is, however, most certainly the province of the Court to ensure that ‘future elections’ in the ‘courts of public opinion’ are ones that freely and truthfully express the will of the People. All elections shall be free — without that guarantee, there is no remedy or relief at all.”

The House districts that must be redrawn are in the following counties: Alamance, Anson-Union, Brunswick-New Hanover, Buncombe, Cabarrus-Davie-Montgomery-Richmond-Rowan-Stanly (except House District 66), Cleveland-Gaston, Columbus-Pender-Robeson, Cumberland, Duplin-Onslow, Franklin-Nash, Forsyth-Yadkin, Guilford (except House districts 57, parts of 59, 61 and 62), Lenoir-Pitt and Mecklenburg.

The Senate districts that must be redrawn are in the following counties: Alamance-Guilford-Randolph (except Senate Districts 24, parts of 27, and all of 28), Bladen-Brunswick-New Hanover-Pender, Buncombe-Henderson-Transylvania, Davie-Forsyth, Duplin-Harnett-Johnston-Lee-Nash-Sampson, Franklin-Wake and Mecklenburg.

Common Cause North Carolina, a named plaintiff in the lawsuit, called the ruling a landmark victory.

“This is a historic victory for the people of North Carolina,” said Executive Director Bob Phillips. “The court has made clear that partisan gerrymandering violates our state’s constitution and is unacceptable. Thanks to the court’s landmark decision, politicians in Raleigh will no longer be able to rig our elections through partisan gerrymandering.

“What’s crucial now is ensuring that the legislature fully complies with the court’s order and draws new legislative districts in a timely fashion, with full transparency and robust public input, absolutely free from gerrymandering.”

The ruling is the first from a state court since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year it would officially be leaving partisan gerrymandering limits up to individual states. Lawmakers tried to argue at the time that partisan gerrymandering should be an issue decided by lawmakers, not the judicial branch.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin was pleased with the ruling from the Wake County Superior Court.

“From targeting people based on their race to dividing them based on their political beliefs, Republicans for a decade have rigged our state and silenced voters to cling desperately onto power,” he wrote in a statement. “North Carolina Democrats will never stop advocating for people’s right to make their voices heard at the ballot box, and we look forward to taking back control of the General Assembly using fair maps next November.”

Read the full ruling below. Make sure to check NC Policy Watch tomorrow for a full update.

Redistricting Ruling (Text)

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

New Obama initiative will train, organize volunteers across country to impact redistricting process

North Carolina will be a key target in former President Barack Obama’s new initiative aimed at ending partisan gerrymandering.

Obama unveiled Redistricting U on Twitter on Monday as a free, in-person organizing training initiative. Dedicated trainers will be sent to cities across the country to “train volunteers, give them the tools to impact the redistricting process in their state, hear from them on how to best make change in their communities, and empower them to be leaders in the movement for fair maps.”

The training is an arm of All On The Line, a grassroots advocacy campaign fighting to end gerrymandering and to implement fair maps ahead of the 2020 Census and next redistricting cycle in 2021. North Carolina is identified on the website as one of 10 priority states where the organization “can have a unique impact on fair representation for the next decade.”

Obama has supported the work of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, chaired by former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder, since leaving office. All On The Line is a campaign of the National Redistricting Action Fund (NRAF), an affiliate of the NDRC.

It began, in part, when NRAF combined forces with Organizing for Action, an organization founded by Obama aides that grew out of the former president’s campaign infrastructure, according to the website.

“The power of ordinary people coming together to enact change is central to the beliefs of President Obama and Eric Holder, and they are both active in this effort and supportive of this campaign,” it states.

Redistricting has long been an issue in North Carolina — first it was with racial gerrymandering and now the ongoing battle is over partisan gerrymandering, a process in which lawmakers draw voting district lines to maximize their political party, entrenching its power for 10 years at a time.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined this year to limit partisan gerrymandering and instead left the issue up to the states to deal with as they see fit.

North Carolinians are awaiting a decision from a three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court about whether the 2017 legislative maps that Republican lawmakers passed were an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. That case is expected to eventually work it’s way up to the state Supreme Court, which would have the final say on any partisan gerrymandering limits.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Lawmakers approve bill implementing Marsy’s Law

*This article has been updated to reflect a response from the Conference of District Attorneys.

Lawmakers approved legislation Wednesday implementing a constitutional amendment that expands victims’ rights in North Carolina.

The Senate approved Senate Bill 682 unanimously and the House passed the measure 113-4, with no votes from Representatives Susan Fisher (D-Buncombe), Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford), Marcia Morey (D-Durham) and Verla Insko (D-Orange). The amendment, better known as Marsy’s Law, goes into effect Saturday after a majority of North Carolinians voted for it last fall.

The bill requires that victims, upon request, be granted certain rights, including notice of court proceedings for the accused, to be present and heard at those proceedings, to receive restitution “in a reasonably timely manner, when ordered by the court” and to reasonably confer with the district attorney’s office.

The measure “does not create a claim for damages against the state, any county or municipality, or any state or county agencies, instrumentalities, officers, or employees.”

A crime victim, according to SB 682, may assert their rights under the constitutional amendment by making a motion to the court of jurisdiction, but a proceeding will not be subject to “undue delay” for enforcement of those rights. If any motions allege a district attorney or law enforcement agency failed to comply with a victims’ rights, the individual must first file a written complaint with that office and give time for a resolution.

Marsy’s Law for North Carolina released a statement Thursday urging Gov. Roy Cooper to sign SB 682. Cooper’s office did not return an email seeking comment about whether he planned to pass or veto the measure.

“I’m relieved and thankful that the General Assembly has passed the bill overwhelmingly,” said Kit Gruelle, a North Carolina victim advocate. “They have affirmed the voices, experiences and rights of crime victims across our state and it’s what we all have been hoping for.”

The amendment will go into effect with or without Cooper signing on to the implementing legislation.

Peg Dorer, Director of the Conference of District Attorneys, said Thursday that district attorneys and their staff across the state have long ensured the rights of crime victims and will continue to do so under the new law.

“As has been our expressed concern from the beginning of this victims’ rights initiative, the new law will significantly increase the number of victims and the information they must receive,” she said in an email. “This will put a significant burden on already understaffed District Attorneys’ offices.”

The Conference supported the constitutional amendment upon assurances that resources and some limited automation would be provided to assist in new mandates. To date, these assurances have not been realized, Dorer said.

In preparation for the effective date, the Conference has been developing the required forms and materials to notify and provide victims their rights. The organization is tasked in the bill with developing and disseminating forms related to the amendment and with developing procedures to automate court date notifications.

Opponents of the amendment have said victims’ rights already were enshrined in the constitution and enhancing them should be done by statute, not by an experimental amendment. They’ve also pointed to other states that have experienced issues implementing versions of Marsy’s Law as cautionary tales.