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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

You know something’s dreadfully wrong with your system of criminal justice when the full exoneration of innocent men convicted of heinous crimes keeps happening over and over. Another one occurred in North Carolina today when Willie Womble — a man who has spent 39 of his 60 years on the planet incarcerated for a crime he did not commit — was cleared of a crime that occurred in 1975.

Good lord! How do the still-living people who had a role in such a miscarriage of justice sleep at night?

Obviously, there’s no getting Mr. Womble back his life that the people of North Carolina and their officers and employees wrongfully and tragically stole, but here are a few things that Gov. McCrory ought to consider doing immediately:

1) Ordering the immediate commutation of all death sentences in the state to life in prison,

2) Taking whatever steps are necessary to provide for a dramatic increase in the budget and staffing of the Innocence Inquiry Commission (and maybe the private nonprofit known as the NC Center on Actual Innocence as well) along with the directive that it (they) undertake a review of a vastly larger number of the state’s existing murder convictions — if not all of them, and

3) Announcing that he will no longer approve of any new death sentences in the state until — at a minimum — a complete and full review of every such case has occurred.

Commentary

We’ll take good news where we can find it these days and this one from yesterday’s Raleigh News & Observer certainly seems worth celebrating.

Conservative anti-death penalty group active in NC

A North Carolina chapter of a national network of conservatives that wants to put the brakes on — if not outright abolish — the death penalty has become active this year.

A number of prominent Republicans have joined N.C. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty: Les Merritt, the former state auditor; Ernie Pearson, a former assistant commerce secretary; David Robinson, once the Wake County GOP chairman; Marshall Hurley, former state Republican Party general counsel; Steve Monks, former Durham County GOP chairman; Mark Edwards, the Nash County GOP chairman; and Gerald Galloway, retired police chief in Southern Pines….

The conservative group takes its position based on their belief that the death penalty doesn’t jibe with the small-government philosophy. They also say mistaken convictions, the emotional impact on victims’ families and their pro-life stance are among the reasons people have become members.

Hyden worked for the National Rifle Association and ran a congressional campaign in western North Carolina. The other national coordinator is Heather Beaudoin, who worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Meanwhile, in case you had any doubts about how North Carolina was saved from executing an innocent man by dumb luck, read Fannie Flono’s column in this morning’s Charlotte Observer, “The death penalty, luck and innocence.” As Flono notes:

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Willie WombleHow many times is a North Carolinian previously convicted of murder going to have to be found to be innocent before it’s universally acknowledged that the death penalty is a hopeless relic of a bygone age?

Let’s hope today’s unanimous recommendation by the state Innocence Inquiry Commission that Willie Henderson Womble was wrongfully convicted 38 years ago for a murder in Granville County adds more fuel to the fire. The decision provides more powerful evidence that our justice system remains hugely flawed and that it is simply impossible to guarantee that our state does not commit the most heinous of all imaginable acts by a government — i.e. the execution of an innocent human being.

And while it’s obviously true that Mr. Womble did not receive the death penalty, it’s also clear that he has been forced to endure something just short of it with the loss of 38 years of freedom. Moreover, as Mr. Womble’s case also makes clear, there’s every reason to believe that numerous innocent humans have been executed in all of our names down though the decades.

The bottom line: Womble’s case once again highlights a deplorable reality that must be brought to an end and set right as soon as possible.