Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

A must-read: New series shows long odds for sexual assault convictions in NC

From time to time, good reporters go above and beyond in their public service.

Case in point: A new four-part series publishing this week details the stunningly long odds of a sexual assault conviction in North Carolina today. And in some counties, it’s near impossible.

The numbers indicate, quite frankly, what many advocates have long believed to be the case: the criminal justice system is stacked against victims. 

From Carolina Public Press’ synopsis of the series:

Analysis of 4 ½ years of North Carolina court data shows that about 1 in 4 sexual assault defendants who were charged and had their cases resolved in that time window were convicted of either sexual assault or a reduced and related charge. Of those cases in that time period, 50 defendants went to trial; 23 were found guilty. But individual counties had different outcomes. More than 30 of the state’s 100 counties had no sexual assault or reduced-charge convictions at all. A few were well above the statewide level.

A collaborative investigative project spanning 6 ½ months and including 11 news organizations analyzed statewide court data and conducted extensive interviews with sexual assault survivors, victim advocates, medical professionals, law enforcement, prosecutors and state officials across the North Carolina.

The result is Seeking Conviction, an investigative series examining sexual assault convictions in North Carolina, the challenges to successful prosecution, the differences across jurisdictions and the issues state court rulings create when it comes to consent.

Keying on its exhaustive analysis of court records, the series found that the prospect of a sexual assault conviction varies depending on your zip code.

Indeed, in some counties, suspects face very little chance of a conviction, while in others, the chances are markedly higher.

This week’s series is a call to action. Make it the first of many, many conversations.

Courts & the Law, Governor Roy Cooper, News

Gov. Cooper names appeals court judge, Mark Davis, to N.C. Supreme Court

Newly appointed state Supreme Court Justice Mark Davis

North Carolina will soon have a full state Supreme Court, after Gov. Roy Cooper announced his appointment Monday of state Court of Appeals Judge Mark Davis to the high court.

Davis will fill the seat once occupied by new Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. Cooper named Beasley to the chief justice role last month when the former chief justice, Mark Martin, retired at the end of February to take a job as the dean of Regent University’s law school.

Davis will take over Beasley’s former associate justice position, arriving in time to hear oral arguments when the state Supreme Court convenes in April. He also intends to run for election to a full eight-year term in 2020.

“I know Judge Davis is dedicated to his work and to serving the people of North Carolina, and I know he will continue to serve with distinction as an associate justice on the Supreme Court,” Cooper said.

This is the second time Davis, a registered Democrat, has succeeded Beasley. He was appointed to her Court of Appeals seat by former Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012, and won election to a full eight-year term in 2014. Davis was previously Perdue’s general counsel and, before that, served as a special deputy attorney general at the North Carolina Department of Justice.

Davis, who was born in Onslow County, also worked for more than a decade in the litigation section of the Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice firm, now Womble Bonds Dickinson.

Davis’ appointment shifts the balance of the Supreme Court to a 6-1 Democratic majority. Martin, the former chief justice, was a Republican, and GOP leaders had been hopeful Cooper would appoint a Republican to the high court to keep some balance. Cooper has said before that he would appoint the best person for the job.

Both Beasley’s and Davis’ seats will be up for election in 2020. Davis’ appointment also leaves a vacancy on the state Court of Appeals. Cooper will have the power to fill it.

Several people have already announced their intentions to run for a seat on the state Supreme Court, including the only Republican on the court, Justice Paul Newby, who will challenge Beasley for the leadership position.

Other likely candidates in 2020 include Phil Berger Jr., who currently serves on the state Court of Appeals – he is also the son of Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger – and former state Senate member Tamara Barringer, a Wake County attorney.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

(Note: Managing Editor Billy Ball contributed to this report.)

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Education, News

What this week’s court order means for N.C.’s unpaid $730 million tab to school districts

Running out the clock, it seems, is not an option for remedying North Carolina’s $730 million technology tab to local school districts.

That’s the takeaway from Wake Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier’s order this week extending a hefty judgement against the state for civil penalties unconstitutionally diverted from schools from 1996 to 2005.

A judge sided with local districts in their case against the state in 2008, but that order was set to expire last year until school board leaders filed a new suit.

Meanwhile, the state — which is not contesting its lingering bill — has been non-committal in addressing their debt. Funds would be used exclusively for school tech.

At least 30 percent of school districts say they don’t have the money to meet the state’s goal for replacing mobile devices every four years, according to the N.C. School Boards Association, which advocates for local boards of education.

Minnie Forte-Brown

“In this ever-changing, high-tech world, that’s unacceptable,” Minnie Forte-Brown, immediate NCSBA past president, said in a statement this week.

The 2008 ruling set the bill, but the courts agree they do not have the power to direct the state in the manner of how they repay their debt. State agencies have only paid about $18 million of the original $750 million ruling.

That leaves school boards waiting to see if and when North Carolina lawmakers take action, no sure thing when state school leaders regularly wage bruising battles with legislators over K-12 cash.

At the very least, the expired ruling means lawmakers won’t get a pass by virtue of the clock.

Read Ed NC‘s report on the ruling below:

A Wake County Superior Court Judge extended a nearly $730 million judgment against the state today for failing to give money received from civil penalties to school districts.

A 2008 court decision said the state owed the public schools almost $750 million in civil penalties collected by state agencies. Since the decision, the state’s public schools have only received about $18 million.

The crux of the issue revolves around the time period between 1996 and 2005, when the state held back money that the courts later said was owed to the state’s public schools under the state constitution. While schools have been receiving the money they’re owed since then, districts are still trying to collect on money owed prior to 2005.

Back in August, The North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) and other plaintiffs refiled the lawsuit because the original judgment was only valid for 10 years and a second lawsuit had to be filed to keep it alive.

“We are pleased that the court extended the judgment against the state,” said Billy Griffin, president of the NCSBA and chairman of the Board of Education in Jones County, in a press release. “These funds are vitally important to public schools across the state because there is certainly no shortage of needs for technology.”

The money from the judgment is meant to be spent on technology, because that is what it was originally meant to be used for.

Historically, the General Assembly has taken no action to repay the money from the judgment, but that appears to be changing. A provision in the House construction bond bill filed by Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, addresses the issue. It says that funds used from the construction bond for school technology shall be credit against that $730 million judgment.

“NCSBA continues to stress to the General Assembly the need to develop a payment structure to return the funds due to the public school students of this state for technology. We are encouraged by the inclusion in Speaker Moore’s bond proposal that any funds used for technology will be credited against the judgment. This is the first of several steps necessary to address the judgment for several years,” said Leanne Winner, NCSBA director of governmental relations, in a press release.

Commentary, Courts & the Law, Legislature

Editorial: NBA All-Star Game returns, but has N.C. really changed?

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

What a difference three years makes, or does it?

As a new Charlotte Observer editorial points out, the NBA All-Star Game returns to North Carolina’s largest city this weekend, roughly three years after the state legislature’s ultra-offensive HB2 derailed league leaders’ plans to hold their annual festivities in Charlotte.

But has North Carolina, and more importantly, the N.C. General Assembly changed? A timely question, given new legislation filed by Republican lawmakers that scoffs at the U.S. Supreme Court’s milestone 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

North Carolina’s new bill is pungent, to be sure, like finding unwashed gym clothes in your bag.

But it seems likely that GOP legislators aim to put marriage equality back on an increasingly calcified, conservative Supreme Court’s docket. Social conservatives lost the public opinion battle long ago, but they may prevail on a post-Kavanaugh, post-Gorsuch SCOTUS.

The editorial rightly examines HB2’s odious replacement too, which banned local non-discrimination ordinances.

The NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver, may look out on a drastically changed North Carolina, but close observers of the legislature know better.

Read The Charlotte Observer‘s editorial below:

Three years ago, the NBA announced it was moving its 2017 All-Star Weekend out of Charlottebecause of HB2, a North Carolina law that allowed for discrimination against the LGBTQ community, including transgender individuals. The NBA’s decision prompted a flurry of action; the NCAA and ACC soon canceled events in North Carolina, as did entertainers and convention gatherings. Charlotte and the state likely lost hundreds of millions in business and tax revenue.

Now HB2 is gone, sort of. Convention business has returned, as have NCAA events. On Friday, Charlotte and North Carolina will come full circle with the NBA bringing back the All-Star Weekend it so startlingly yanked.

But have things really changed?

On the surface, no. HB2 was rescinded, but its replacement forbids cities from adopting non-discrimination ordinances as Charlotte did before HB2. In fact, HB142 does not do one thing to protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination. It was a compromise in name only — a way to get the offensive HB2 off the books and let organizations like the NBA justify doing business in North Carolina again.

Still, different types of change have come. First, N.C. Republicans have largely shown a reluctance to take on the kind of divisive legislation they’d embraced with HB2 and in years before. (Other states’ lawmakers, such as those in Kansas this week, haven’t shown such restraint.) Is North Carolina’s legislative reticence a response to the NBA, NCAA and so many others crossing the state off their list three years ago? Does it have something to do with whispers that Amazon and Apple cast a wary eye at the embarrassing national headlines N.C. Republicans generated? Perhaps, but whatever the reason, those kinds of headlines are now far less frequent. That’s good.

Time also has brought another kind of change, the kind that comes regardless of whether lawmakers give permission. In the years since the transgender bathroom debate first roiled North Carolina and the country, we’ve seen extraordinary progress on transgender awareness in this country. Discriminating against any member of the LGBTQ community is now widely seen as discriminating against all.

This is what history looks like sometimes — not only the big moments and legislation that we mark, but the smaller moments of change that often pave the way. Friday, coincidentally, not only brings All Star festivities to Charlotte, but also an anniversary of sorts: 10 years ago, Presbyterian church leaders representing the Charlotte area officially ratified a proposal allowing gays and lesbians to become pastors and elders. It was a big deal then, but now it doesn’t seem that way. Other churches have followed suit. The country has moved forward. Progress has come.

This also is true: When progress does arrive, it’s usually led not by legislation, but by people and organizations standing up and demanding change. That’s what the NBA did three years ago. It was a decision that was both courageous and jarring. It mattered. Welcome back.

Education, News

Governor’s school safety committee: Trained police, threat assessments, mental health funding needed to combat school shootings

A state committee established after last year’s shooting at a Florida high school says North Carolina should place a trained police officer in every school, conduct more rigorous threat assessments, and expand funding for mental health services.

The committee, formed last year in the Governor’s Crime Commission, made their recommendations in a new report for Gov. Roy Cooper. 

Among its recommendations, the panel urged state leaders to fund enhanced mental health training for those school resource officers, or SROs. Officers should also work with schools to prep for an “active shooter” and conduct drills.

The committee also backed the creation of gun violence protection orders, offering a legal process to “temporarily remove guns from a dangerous individual,” Cooper’s office said. State Rep. Maria Morey, a Durham judge turned lawmaker, urged legislators to adopt such a proposal last year. 

“When parents send their kids to school they expect them to be out of harm’s way, and we owe it to these kids and their families to make sure our schools are safe environments for learning,” Cooper said in a statement Thursday. “I appreciate the work of this committee and I look forward to continuing to work with them as well as other parents, law enforcement officers and educators to push for safer schools.”

The committee — which included law enforcement, juvenile justice experts, educators and state officials — also urged lawmakers to fund Cooper’s 2018 budget proposal for $55 million in spending on mental health in schools, including cash for more nurses, counselors, psychologists and social workers.

It shares some similarities with a much-criticized report finalized last year by Republican lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly, including a focus on mental health in schools, although legislators resisted calls to discuss guns during their sessions, instead pushing for greater civic education and first-aid training for students.

Gov. Roy Cooper

Meanwhile, the Cooper committee is likely to field criticism from advocates who point to emerging evidence that a greater police presence in schools increases the likelihood that students — particularly Black students — will leave school with a criminal offense that might otherwise have prompted school discipline.

School police are also disproportionately called on Black students in schools, data show, feeding what’s referred to by youth justice advocates as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which students are siphoned out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

Cooper’s panel urged community dialogue on the SRO controversy, as well as specific guidelines for police activities in schools and improved data collection of school violence.

Other recommendations from the report:

  • “Vulnerability assessments” of schools to identify ways to make them safer, including placement of security cameras and alarms
  • Development of “multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams” that meet to discuss possible threats
  • A statewide tip line for reporting school threats
  • Training law enforcement and educators to “communicate more effectively” about school threats
  • Work with experts to develop best practices for SROs and educators in “distinguishing the difference between bad behavior and criminal conduct”

The committee began its work last spring, holding five public forums in Greenville and Greensboro. It was co-chaired by Gaston County Sheriff Alan Cloninger and former Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison.