Ignoring The Public To Speed Up Executions

Gov. Rick Scott (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

Gov. Rick Scott (Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

On Friday late afternoon, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the “Timely Justice Act,” a bill designed to speed up executions in a state that is responsible for more known wrongful convictions in death penalty cases than any other. As a result, there are “at least 13 inmates immediately eligible for death warrants.”

Governor Scott signed the bill after requesting to hear from the public, who responded by overwhelmingly urging him to veto it. As the News Service of Florida reported:

“As of Thursday, his office had received 447 phone calls, with 438 opposed to the bill; 14 letters, with 13 opposed; and 14,571 emails, with 14,565 opposed.”

Although Governor Scott, in signing the bill into law, ignored this public response, he does seem to have been impacted by it. He is now claiming that the “Timely Justice Act” is not meant to “fast track” executions, a claim seemingly disputed by the bill’s key sponsor, who said on Twitter that “Several on death row need to start picking out their last meals.”

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Race And Justice In North Carolina: Sinking Into The Past

Death row inmate Marcus Robinson listens in Fayetteville, North Carolina as Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. It was the first case to be decided under the North Carolina's Racial Justice Act (Photo Credit: Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images).

Death row inmate Marcus Robinson listens in Fayetteville, North Carolina as Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. It was the first case to be decided under the North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (Photo Credit: Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images).

I grew up in Durham, North Carolina in the 1970s. Racism – the Jim Crow kind – was still there in pockets, but it seemed to be receding; or at least it was being replaced by the less overt, white-flight variety. I left home for college in the 1980s and watched from a distance as North Carolina continued to struggle to extricate itself from its legacy of racism.

The death penalty is one of the ugliest vestiges of that ugly legacy, but North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006. There were no death sentences in 2012. A poll earlier this year showed that majorities of North Carolinians support replacing the death penalty with life without parole.

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Is Racial Justice In North Carolina Coming Or Going?

North Carolina is a state being pulled in two directions at once.  A Southern state, with that legacy of slavery and racism, North Carolina has been, historically, an avid user of the death penalty.  No more.  There have been no executions since 2006, and this year (for the first time in 35 years) there were no death sentences either. Passage of the Racial Justice Act in 2009, which promised to expose past and present racial biases at work in North Carolina’s criminal justice system, was hailed as an inspiring example of a Southern state courageously coming to terms with its racial realities.

Then, in April, Cumberland County Superior Court judge Meeks ruled that “race was a significant factor in prosecutorial decisions” in the case of Marcus Robinson, and commuted his death sentence. When confronted with this stark example of racial bias in practice, the political response was swift: cut and run.  By July, the RJA had been gutted; next year it will probably be repealed entirely.  The racial bias embedded in North Carolina criminal justice will once again be swept under the rug.  Enlightenment will be shunned, and blissful ignorance embraced.

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Death Penalty In 2012: Seven Significant Signs

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature's  vote to abolish the death penalty.

A final tally of the Connecticut legislature’s vote to abolish the death penalty.

By this time at the end of the year, states have generally stopped killing their prisoners. This break from executions is a good thing, and perhaps this year it will give us a chance to reflect on the larger question of our violent culture, and on how perhaps we can start focusing on preventing terrible crimes rather than simply responding with more violence.

The end of the year is also a time for looking back. Fortunately, this is also the time of year when the Death Penalty Information Center releases its year-end report, which provides a lot of good data. This year’s version reveals the geographically arbitrary (and increasingly isolated) nature of capital punishment in the U.S. In 2012, death sentences and executions maintained their historically low levels, and only nine states actually carried out an execution.  In fact, the majority of U.S. states have not carried out an execution in the last five years. Just four states were responsible for around three-fourths of the country’s executions, and four states issued about two thirds of U.S. death sentences.

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Too Much Racial Justice In North Carolina?

Marcus_Robinson

In a victory over racial bias in the death penalty, Marcus Robinson's death sentence was reduced to life in prison in April 2012.

North Carolina lawmakers are trying to gut the historic Racial Justice Act.

When North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act (RJA), it was a beautiful moment. A state with a long history of racism was vowing to face that legacy head on, by honestly confronting racial bias in death penalty cases.  I grew up in North Carolina and, believe me, this was needed.  It was also a remarkable political achievement and it made me proud to be from there.

Then the law, which allows the use of statistical evidence to prove racial bias in capital cases, was applied.

In the case of Marcus Robinson, a North Carolina judge found that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor” in jury selection at Robinson’s trial, and that statistics showed widespread racial bias in other capital cases across the state at the same time. Robinson’s death sentence was reduced to life without parole.

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Race And Criminal Justice: A New Hope?

Marcus_Robinson

Marcus Robinson will not be executed but instead spend the rest of his life in prison after a judge ruled that his death sentence was tainted by racial discrimination.

Our justice system has a racial bias problem, both in the way it treats suspects, and the way it treats victims.

The cases of Troy Davis and Trayvon Martin underscore this.  If the races were reversed would Troy Davis’ execution have been pursued so relentlessly, would he even have received a death sentence, would police have been so quick to ignore other potential suspects?

And, had the races been reversed, wouldn’t the reaction to Trayvon Martin’s killing have been … different?

But knowing there is racial bias and doing something about it are two different things.  In North Carolina, something is being done.

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Friends, Neighbors and the Fight Against Torture

Many Amnesty International members have long experience with the challenge of opposing state-sponsored torture in other countries.  But when human rights activists in North Carolina found that a trail of torture led to their own backdoor, they learned that talking to neighbors about human rights abuses is just as difficult as challenging a foreign government.

The Washington Post last week featured a story, “Hangar 3′s Mystery” about the work of North Carolina Stop Torture Now to document the activities of a small, nominally private air charter company, Aero Contractors,  whose headquarters are at an airfield in Smithfield, North Carolina.

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Accountability for Torture After 'Mohamed v Jeppesen' Setback

When one door shuts, we have to look for other openings.  That’s what activists are doing in the aftermath of the Sept. 8 federal court decision blocking a lawsuit from people who suffered torture through U.S. extraordinary renditions from proceeding.

Egyptian-born Binyam Mohamed spent just under seven years in custody, four of which at Guantanamo Bay. Mohamed has always insisted that the evidence against him was obtained through torture. The US dropped all charges against him in 2008. SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images

The lawsuit was the last hope among three cases aiming to force the U.S. government to be held accountable for its acts in rendering people to black site prisons or third-party countries where the prisoners were tortured.  This last lawsuit was filed by Binyam Mohamed, Egyptian Ahmed Agiza and three other men who claim they were subjected to enforced disappearance, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment at the hands of US personnel and agents of other countries.

But, even as this last case disappears without a hearing, there is hope.

The day before the ruling was issued, I and a group of individuals looking to pry open the secrecy covering American renditions, met with U.S. Rep. David Price, an Amnesty member with a powerful seat on the House Appropriations Committee.  Price noted that despite our concerns that the Obama Administration hasn’t gone far enough to address human rights concerns in the U.S. war on terror, that opponents have thwarted even the mildest efforts in that vein. “They think they have a political winner,” Rep. Price said. “And I fear I think they are right.”

So what to do when the judges point to Congress and Congress point toward each other to act on something that both acknowledge is a problem but neither will take responsibility for? Amnesty’s statement on the ruling suggests one course of action. Our emphasis is to focus on the justices’ call for non-judicial relief.

In short, it means it is up to us to change the political culture.  I am comfortable with the justice’s efforts to ask the public to take the lead on this.  We shouldn’t rely on the courts to provoke public discussion and acknowledgment of the acts that have been done in our names.

But Rep. Price is also right.  Currently, opposing the closing of black prison sites, opposing closing Guantánamo and opposing any platform for the victims of extraordinary rendition is a political winner.  It’s up to us to change that.  It’s not enough for us to remain quiet.  We have to lead, to talk with our neighbors and in our local communities.

The plane that flew Ahmad Agiza from Sweden to Egypt where he was tortured took off from an airport not 30 miles from my house in North Carolina. The  plane that flew Binyam Mohamed to be tortured came from the same airstrip. We have documented that.  The pilots who flew the plane that carried two men, blindfolded, cuffed and beaten across Europe to Egypt live near me.  The responsibility for the torture that the justices refused to hear truly belongs on all of us. It will stop when we are willing to stand up to make it stop.

Will North Carolina Halt Executions?

Following the release of a devastatingly critical report on the shoddy work of North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) crime labs, Seth Edwards, the president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys today said he “supported a moratorium on the execution of any death-row inmates whose cases include evidence from the State Bureau of Investigations crime labs.”

The fallout from the audit of the SBI, combined with the fact that 152 death row inmates in NC are now challenging their death sentences under the new Racial Justice Act, paints a picture of criminal justice and capital punishment systems in chaos.  And that may be a good thing.  At least the Tar Heel state (unlike some states)  has been somewhat willing to look critically at its systems of justice.   

But this bout of self-examination should only be the beginning.  The state’s investigation of the SBI was not comprehensive (only the serology lab was looked into; the SBI’s performance in other areas – fingerprints, DNA , ballistics, drug analysis, documents and digital – has yet to be reviewed).  The Raleigh News and Observer’s recent hard hitting series provides some idea of what might be found if all those rocks were turned over.  To their credit, NC DAs have demanded a full audit of the SBI.  

Because executing someone wrongfully would be the ultimate injustice, it is imperative that NC take a second look at all death row cases, including those who have already been executed.   Seth Edwards’ suggestion for a partial moratorium is fine, but really all executions should be halted.  And really, they should be halted permanently.

Racial Justice in North Carolina: UPDATE

Today, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act into law, making North Carolina only the second state in the country to allow death row prisoners to meaningfully challenge their death sentences if racial bias is evident.  (Kentucky is the only other state that has adopted similar provisions.)

As discussed in my previous post, race (particularly race of the victim) has been a major factor in who does and does not get death sentences in North Carolina, and 35 inmates on North Carolina’s death row were put there by all-white juries

It is good to see a southern state like North Carolina take such a leadership role in directly confronting its legacy of racism and going the extra mile to ensure that its justice system (or at least its capital punishment system) is no longer infected with racial bias. The 33 other death penalty states, both northern and southern, should follow North Carolina and Kentucky’s lead; racial bias in the death penalty is a national problem.