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Kristin Collins of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation authored the following post for the NC Center for Alternatives to the Death Penalty blog today:

Let’s punish lawyers who put innocent people in prison, instead of those who free them

Chris Mumma with Joseph Sledge on the day of his exoneration.

Chris Mumma with Joseph Sledge on the day of his exoneration.

Joseph Sledge spent 37 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. At his trial, the state paid a lying snitch to testify against him. While he was in prison, the district attorney opposed the DNA testing that would eventually prove Sledge’s innocence. And when the long-delayed tests showed Sledge wasn’t the culprit, the state waited another two years to release him from prison.

Now that Sledge is finally free, the only person being punished is the lawyer who fought to prove his innocence, Chris Mumma. On Thursday, the State Bar found that Mumma violated professional ethics by testing a water bottle for DNA without permission from its owner — all in an attempt to gain an innocent man his freedom against long odds. (The test of the water bottle was inconclusive and had no impact on the final outcome.)

We can’t say it better than the N&O’s Barry Saunders:

“It seems like something out of a dystopian, Twilight Zone world that the woman whose efforts rectified a three-decade miscarriage of justice is the only person being held accountable.”

More disturbing, Jon David, the Bladen County district attorney who fought to keep Sledge behind bars, was involved in filing the bar complaint against Mumma. It appeared to be payback for her exposing the many errors in Sledge’s case to the media. The woman from whom the bottle was taken has strongly supported Mumma and her work to free Sledge, and did not want her to be punished.

Again and again, the prosecutors and cops who put innocent people in prison — even send them to death row — face no consequences, even when their misconduct is glaring. Read More

Commentary

In case you missed it in the holiday hubbub, be sure to check out the fine Progressive Voices essay that death penalty lawyer Ken Rose authored for NC Policy Watch last month: “New data from 2015: Death penalty increasingly a part of NC’s history, not its future.” As Rose pointed out, one of the happiest developments of 2015 is that the death penalty is clearly on the way out:

“People on all sides are realizing that capital punishment is wasteful and ineffective. In the past few months, a former death penalty prosecutor who sent five people to death row and a Republican state legislator have taken public stands against the death penalty.

North Carolina is in step with the nation. We are now among a majority of states that have abandoned the death penalty, either in law or in practice. Across the United States, new death sentences and executions reached historic lows this year. Just six states carried out executions, and many were horribly botched. Even Texas sentenced only two people to death in 2015.”

Rose’s on-the-money observations have been bolstered in recent days as two of the state’s major newspapers have editorialized in favor of abolition.

On January 2, an editorial in the Fayetteville Observer put it this way:

“The current moratorium is the result of problems finding physicians to supervise executions and the reluctance of drug companies to provide the lethal cocktails that are injected. Some state lawmakers have introduced legislation to sidestep those concerns, but they’re having a hard time evading the Constitution’s prohibition of ‘cruel and unusual punishment.’ It’s a legal morass that even death-penalty proponents call a ‘Gordian knot.’ Unraveling it has been an elusive quest and we don’t see any solutions on a near horizon.

Better, we think, to just walk away from it. An execution may be satisfying revenge, but it’s no deterrent. Lifelong incarceration in one of our godforsaken prisons is more effective punishment – and also cheaper and reversible in case of error.

Since we’re on that course anyway, let’s stick to it.”

And this is the conclusion from an editorial in yesterday’s Wilmington Star News:

“In executing our own citizens, we align ourselves with such human rights violators as Iran, Saudi Arabia and China. Russia and most African nations do not have capital punishment.

Polls show that a majority of Americans still support the death penalty, but when offered a choice between death and life without parole, support decreases.

It is time for North Carolina to get out of the business of executing people.”

In short, it looks like the page on this vexing issue may finally be turning and for this we should all be thankful. As the horrific mass executions in Saudi Arabia this week remind us, our state and nation cannot get on the right side of this issue fast enough.

Commentary

altered-state-bannerIf you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out today’s installment of  Altered State: How 5 years of conservative rule have redefined North Carolina

Today’s story by reporter Sharon McCloskey is entitled “Open season on individual rights: Conservatives seek voting restrictions, keep fighting on old social issues.”

Here’s the introduction:

“The party of less government rolled into Raleigh after the 2010 elections champing at the bit, eager to fulfill an agenda long delayed.

‘Regulations kill jobs’ became the rallying cry, but as it turned out, that cry only went so far. When it came to voting booths, bedrooms, doctor’s offices and execution chambers, the self-styled opponents of intrusive government injected themselves in ways not seen before in state government.

Voting rights landed first in their crosshairs.

‘We’ve lost every gain we’d made,’ Bob Phillips of Common Cause North Carolina said. ‘We’ve lost just about all the pro-voting, pro-democracy laws that we had pushed.’

But voters weren’t alone. Women, gay North Carolinians, death row inmates — all were fair game as conservative lawmakers pursued their causes with a vengeance.

‘There’s a real harsh, mean spirit inside the Legislative Building, more so than I’ve ever seen,’ Phillips added.”

Click here to read the entire story.

Commentary

[This post originally appeared on the blog of the NC Center for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.]

N.C. prosecutor who sent five to death row: It’s time to end death penalty

By Kristin Collins

Twenty five years ago, as an assistant district attorney in Forsyth County, Vince Rabil helped put Blanche Taylor Moore on death row. Today, Rabil says it is time to end the death penalty and calls Moore — a frail 82-year-old still sitting on death row — “a living monument to the failure of a vanishing legal remedy.”

In an op-ed published Sunday, Rabil repudiates a punishment that he spent nearly two decades of his career fighting to uphold. In the 1990s, he prosecuted a dozen people for the death penalty and put at least five on death row. Four remain there today.

Rabil believed so strongly in the death penalty that, in 1997, he became the first prosecutor in the country to seek death for a drunk driver. “This will seriously make everyone stop after the first drink or the second one,” he said at the time.

Now, Rabil says the death penalty is a broken system that costs taxpayers dearly, threatens innocent defendants, and does little to comfort the grieving families of victims. He says life with no possibility of parole is a more appropriate replacement.

Rabil’s transformation reveals how much our state has evolved since the 1990s, when a blind faith in the capital punishment system allowed us to sentence dozens of people a year to die. This year, N.C. juries didn’t hand down a single death sentence, executions remained on hold for a ninth year, and public opposition to the death penalty reached its highest point since the 1970s. In North Carolina, even a Republican legislator came out against capital punishment.

At the same time, Rabil’s courageous stance against the death penalty marks a turning point in North Carolina. While many prosecutors, current and former, no doubt have serious concerns about the death penalty, Rabil is the first in our state to take such a public stand.

We applaud Rabil for speaking the truth that so many others are afraid to admit.

News

The current U. S. Supreme Court term is barely a month old, but the justices have already heard argument in four death penalty cases — and will hear a fifth on Monday — making the term the most important for capital punishment issues in decades, legal experts say.

The justices themselves fueled speculation near the end of last term that the court might finally address the death penalty’s viability under the Eighth Amendment, with Justice Stephen Breyer (joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) opining in Glossip v. Gross that it was “highly likely that the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment.”  And Justice Antonin Scalia last week told an audience at the University of Minnesota Law School that he “wouldn’t be surprised if the Supreme Court eventually strikes down capital punishment.”

That question has not yet been squarely put before the high court, but the term is young and with five death penalty cases already under their collective belt, the justices still have plenty of time to take it on.

Monday’s case, Foster v. Chatman, raises an issue well known to North Carolinians — racial bias in juror selection in capital cases — and comes at a time when the state Supreme Court itself is grappling with cases arising under the now-repealed Racial Justice Act.

As described by Rory Little at SCOTUSblog:

Foster, an eighteen-year-old African American at the time, was convicted of killing an elderly white woman during a burglary in Georgia. During jury selection, the prosecutor struck all four black potential jurors, and Foster was convicted and sentenced by an all-white jury. When an objection was raised under the Court’s 1986 decision in Batson v. Kentucky, the prosecutor offered “race neutral” reasons for striking the black jurors, while protecting his file from discovery.

Some nineteen years later, the prosecutor’s jury selection notes — produced pursuant to an Open Records Act request — revealed a direct targeting of black jurors, but state courts refused to entertain Foster’s request for relief.

For more on the growing push to end capital punishment, and reasons why, read here and here.

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