Commentary, News

Cooper seeks ahead-of-time disaster declaration

Gov. Roy Cooper

Let’s fervently hope the Trump administration doesn’t pull any of the duplicitous backstabbing and racist incompetence that have become two of its key trademarks in the field of disaster recovery as North Carolinians and others respond to Hurricane Florence. Unfortunately, both seem easy to envision in the weeks and months ahead if past performance (think Puerto Rico) is any indication.

For what it’s worth and to his credit, however, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper appears to be doing his darndest to get out in front on this issue. This is from a news release Cooper sent out a little while ago:

Governor Cooper Seeks Federal Disaster Declaration Ahead of Historic Hurricane Florence
Urges North Carolinians: “Get ready now.”

 RALEIGH: Governor Roy Cooper today asked for a federal disaster declaration on behalf of North Carolina to ensure the state can get federal aid as soon as possible.

In a letter sent this morning to President Donald Trump, Gov. Cooper made the request for federal help due to Hurricane Florence which is forecast to hit the state as an unprecedented hurricane later this week.

With the latest forecast showing Florence bearing down on North Carolina and intensifying in strength, Governor Cooper today urged North Carolina residents, businesses and visitors to take the threat posed by Hurricane Florence seriously, plan accordingly and get ready now.

“The forecast places North Carolina in the bull’s eye of Hurricane Florence, and the storm is rapidly getting stronger,” Governor Cooper said. “When weather forecasters tell us “life threatening,” we know it’s serious. We are bracing for a hard hit.”

As the forecast becomes clearer, Florence poses three challenges: coastal storm surge, strong winds and inland flooding that inundates rivers and low-lying ground, Cooper said.

Florence is a rapidly strengthening hurricane that may make landfall between Southport and Wilmington as early as sometime Friday morning. Tropical storm level winds may be felt as early as Wednesday. The forecast shows the potential for very heavy rainfall across much of North Carolina.

“Florence is a threat well beyond the coast, so inland counties need to be ready as well,” Gov. Cooper said.

State officials continue to prepare for potential impacts from a major hurricane later this week: Read more

Commentary, News

Irony alert: Billionaire behind “Marsy’s Law” victims’ rights amendment becomes a criminal defendant

Here’s an interesting news story from a few weeks’ back that probably deserves more attention in light of the so-called “victims’ rights” amendment dubbed “Marsy’s Law” that North Carolina voters are being asked to pass judgment on this fall: the man behind it is getting a look at the criminal justice system from a different perspective — that of criminal defendant.

As the Nevada Current noted last week in an article on Marsy’s Law (that state will also vote on the proposed constitutional amendment this fall), Henry Nicholas, the billionaire who launched the Marsy’s Law movement in response to his daughter’s tragic murder by her boyfriend 35 years ago, was arrested in Las Vegas last month on suspicion of drug trafficking.

As the Los Angeles Times reported at the time:

“Broadcom co-founder and billionaire Henry T. Nicholas III was arrested in Las Vegas on suspicion of narcotics trafficking after police discovered heroin, cocaine, meth and ecstasy in his suite at the Encore hotel, police said Thursday.

Las Vegas Metropolitan police detained Nicholas, 59, and a woman, Ashley Fargo, about 10:40 p.m. Tuesday after hotel security called the police to the room, said Officer Larry Hadfield, a department spokesman. Hadfield said security reported finding contraband in the room.”

The story goes on  to point out that Nicholas has actually had several run-ins with the law in recent years, including previous indictments for drug violations and illegal stock trading.

The irony here, of course, is that, as many critics of Marsy’s Law have noted, one big potential problem with the proposal is that it could pose serious problems for the rights of criminal defendants who could see their rights to justice compromised as prosecutors elevate the rights of crime victims over the search for justice in individual cases.

Of course, given that Nicholas is rich and seems to have been accused mostly of “victimless crimes,” perhaps he isn’t too worried about such collateral damage from his law. Unfortunately, for those who lack access to teams of expensive defense attorneys and/or are accused of crimes with sympathetic and outspoken victims, Nicholas’s law is likely to cause great injustice.

Commentary

New and scathing editorials decry amendments as “cynical,” “rawest political power play”

The editorials from major media outlets decrying the six proposed constitutional amendments on this fall’s North Carolina ballot continue to pile up. On Saturday, Raleigh’s News & Observer pointed out that a new Elon University poll finds that voters are mostly in the dark about the amendments. The editorial (“The NC GOP’s amendment plan: Fool the voters”) went on to note that:

“The idea that these Republicans want ‘the people’ to decide has been absurd from the start. They have shown no interest in hearing from the people since they took control of the legislature in 2011. Public hearings on legislation, when they occur, are often for show only. And every effort has been made to suppress the public’s voice through extreme gerrymandering, laws that make it harder to vote and the mass arrests of protesters.

Now, with their veto-proof majorities at risk in November’s election, Republicans are trying to legislate years ahead. They want amendments that will lock-in tax rates, switch appointment powers from the Democratic governor to the legislature and establish an as yet undefined voter ID requirement that will mostly affect constituencies that tend to vote Democratic.

It’s likely this cynical strategy to subvert the democratic process by using the direct democracy of a statewide vote will work. The amendments will be presented as popular or harmless-sounding changes, but the negative consequences are left unsaid.

What voters will find on their ballots in November won’t be what an amendment should be: a broad and easily understood change that deserves the durable protection of being added to the state Constitution. What they’ll find are tricks presented as improvements.”

And this is from the lead editorial in this morning’s Winston-Salem Journal (“Reject this power play involving the NC Constitution”):

“Our legislature has acted with so little concern for transparency and full representation that any future decisions probably won’t require much process. Retiring state Rep. John Blust (R-Greensboro) derided his colleagues as being controlled by a small group of the powerful. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that every appointment now will be the product of a few rather than everyone?

These amendments were drafted in the dark, presented under a deadline, removed from full-throated debate, shoved on the ballot for you to consider. Why? Because their passage cedes to the legislature tools to execute more self-serving judgments without input from your representative.

The only way to check this power play is for you to reject them all.”

Amen to that.

Commentary

Juror on tragedy of wrongfully sentencing man to death: “We got duped by the system”

Henry McCollum

If you missed it, be sure to check out an op-ed that was published in Raleigh’s News & Observer yesterday by Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. In “He spent 30 years in prison. How did jurors get it wrong?” Collins tells the story of interviewing a former juror in the 1983 trial of Henry McCollum who, like the others, wrongfully voted to convict the man and sentence him to death for a crime he did not commit.

“One elderly woman sat with us in her living room, wearing a pink nightgown. ‘I should have followed my conscience,’ she said, her hands shaking. ‘I hope he can forgive me.’ It’s unclear if she’s seeking forgiveness from the innocent man she sent to death row, or God himself.

She believed the Bible’s instruction: “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, as a juror decades earlier, she voted for a death sentence for Henry McCollum, an intellectually disabled teenager who was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl in Robeson County.

The juror put the trial out of her mind until, four years ago this week, McCollum was exonerated. New DNA testing proved another man guilty, and McCollum blameless. After 30 years on death row, McCollum was free.”

Collins goes on to explain how the juror in question (and all the others) were denied critical information by prosecutors that they needed to reach a fair verdict, but now expressed great regret at the injustice of which they had been a part. Here’s the powerful conclusion:

“One juror said his biggest regret is that he trusted prosecutors to tell the truth. If McCollum was on trial, he believed, he’d probably done it.

Like everyone we talked to, his most vivid memories were the photos. At the time, he had a daughter the same age as the victim. When the verdict was announced in the courtroom, he looked at her father. The juror had done what the prosecutor said was right, and he hoped it would ease another father’s pain.

‘I’ve been trying to figure out, where did we go wrong?’ he said. ‘I feel like we got duped by the system.’

I was in the courtroom for McCollum’s exoneration four years ago. I will never forget the sight of him standing in a cage — the court probably calls it a holding cell — during a break. He stared silently at the floor, powerless against a system that had chained and caged him for his entire adult life.

Now, there is another image that stays with me. A woman sitting in the dim light of her living room, hardly strong enough to rise from her chair, wondering what those 30 years were like for Henry McCollum. Wondering whether God has heard her pleas for forgiveness.”

Click here to read the entire essay.

Commentary

Charlotte Observer editorial cites PW investigation, calls for Mark Johnson to come clean on iPad purchase

Be sure to check out the lead editorial in this morning’s Charlotte Observer. The editorial (“North Carolina’s schools superintendent just raised a huge red flag about a suspicious purchase he made”) cites Policy Watch reporter Billy Ball’s investigation and exclusive story on North Carolina schools Superintendent Mark Johnson’s ethically questionable $6 million iPad purchase earlier this summer.

This is from the editorial:

“State schools Superintendent Mark Johnson has long been a fan of technology in classrooms. He campaigned on it before winning office in 2016, although he had difficulty explaining precisely how he wanted technology used and specifically how it would benefit students. Now he’s struggling to explain something new — a $6 million purchase of iPads the state made shortly after Johnson visited Apple headquarters in California earlier this year. He also raised a big red flag Wednesday by trying to quell public discussion about the purchase.

First, some background: Johnson announced Aug. 7 that his department would be providing a new iPad for most every K-3 public school classroom in the state. As the Raleigh News & Observer reported then, the purchase was made with $6 million that was supposed to be directed to teachers in 2016 but had gone unspent, according to the Department of Public Instruction.

There was some grumbling then about local districts knowing better how to spend money on their classrooms than the state superintendent, but soon, advocacy group NC Policy Watch asked a bigger question: Did Johnson bypass established procedures and protocols in making the purchase without taking bids first? The answer appears to be yes, and what’s worse is that the iPads purchase came after Johnson and a group of education officials and lawmakers traveled to Cupertino on Apple’s dime. (That trip included a presentation on Apple’s campus titled ‘Literacy and the iPad.’)

Paid trips, of course, are considered a gift under N.C. law, and state ethics statutes say N.C. officials generally can’t accept gifts from vendors. Such statutes are designed to stop officials like state superintendents from favoring one company over another.”

After noting that a Republican member of the State Board of Education had pressed Johnson on the matter this week and that Johnson had replied that he wanted to discuss the matter in private rather than in an open meeting, the editorial concludes this way:

“If there’s ever a time to keep asking questions, it’s when an elected official says he wants to talk about the public’s business privately. Board members — and perhaps the state ethics commission — should press Johnson for answers regarding the iPads purchase. For starters: Johnson says the purchase was made using a pre-existing contract, one that he presumably thinks allowed him to bypass a bidding process. Johnson should produce that contract and explain in detail how it allowed for a no-bid purchase.

Johnson also should show why either he or the Apple trip was exempt from state ethics rules involving vendors and gifts.

A $6 million iPads expenditure is not a particularly big deal, given the $13 billion-plus North Carolina spends on schools each year. It is a big deal, however, when a public official thinks that the rules don’t apply to him. Johnson needs to explain publicly — not in emails or phone calls — why that’s not the case with his Apple trip and iPads purchase.”

Click here to read the entire editorial.