As recent months have unfolded, we are all bombarded with news of threats to the dreams of dreamers, state-sanctioned hatred in many forms, and a return to a criminal justice system that seeks to address social problems by locking people away. As soon as we are presented with one battle to be fought, another one surfaces. In times such as these, what can we do to protect our communities? One answer is to dig deeper into the power that we have as citizens of a democratic society. We must continue to vote. This means educating ourselves about the roles of all elected officials, not just those we hear about regularly. Carolina Justice Policy Center, CJPC, is launching a new voter education initiative to do just that.
Some elected officials that we regularly overlook are those who operate within our criminal justice system. Sheriffs, District Attorneys (DAs), Judges, and County Commissioners collectively have the power to change lives in profound ways. In North Carolina, a sheriff is the highest ranking law enforcement officer in each county. While specific duties may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, all sheriffs have duties related to three branches of law enforcement including policing, courts/criminal justice, and corrections/jail. The District Attorney (DA) is the elected public official in each county who represents the state in the prosecution of all criminal matters. North Carolina Judges preside over courtroom proceedings. While these are the basic roles of these officers, the impact they can have on the life of an average citizen is far from basic.
Carolina Justice Policy Center has prepared an educational program aimed at educating voters on the roles these elected official play and giving you the tools that you need to make sure your voice is heard when developing policies and practices in their respective offices. CJPC wants to come to your meetings, gatherings, churches and community events to educate and empower. If you are interested in CJPC presenting to your group, please call Attorney Dawn Blagrove, Executive Director of CJPC, at 919-682-1149 or via email at email@example.com
The US Supreme Court issued Georgia death row inmate Keith Tharpe a stay of execution last week because of racial bias from a juror who sentenced him back in 1990 for the murder of his sister-in-law, Jacquelin Freeman.
The justices granted him the stay while they decide if they will take up the appeal. If they decide against it, the stay will be lifted and Tharpe will be executed despite racial bias.
Tharpe’s attorneys argued that juror Barney Gattie violated his constitutional rights to a fair trial in his 1998 affidavit, when he referenced Tharpe using the n-word and wondered if “black people even have souls.” His attorneys further argued that he is ineligible for execution because he is intellectually disabled.
This furthers the argument that capital punishment is inundated with bias. The decision between death and life in prison rests not only on the severity of the crime, but also race and income.
Unfortunately, this kind of blatant racism is not an anomoly, even in capital cases. To learn more about this case and others in which overt racism played a clear role in capital sentencing, click here.
The Sixth Amendment of the United States guarantees the right to a speedy trial – Kharon Davis has not been granted that right.
At age 22, he was charged with capital murder and put in the county jail. Ten years later, he is still there, awaiting trial. He has not yet been found guilty, but has already served half the minimum sentence for murder. So far he has had nine trial dates, the first of which was in 2008.
The case, State of Alabama vs. Kharon Torchec Davis, shows loopholes in the constitution that supposedly ensures the right to a speedy trial. In capital murder cases, it is not unusual for the defendant to have to spend two to three years awaiting trial behind bars if they cannot afford bail.
Davis has taken some blame for the delay of his trial – he replaced his second team of court-appointed lawyers due to a lack of trust, even though he was warned that it would further postpone the trial.
Davis has had two judges and four teams of lawyers. His first lawyer was the father of one of the investigating officers of the case, and cross-examined his son at the preliminary hearing. Four years later, the district attorney raised a concern about a conflict of interest and appointed him a new lawyer, who still needed time to finish up another murder case.
He continues to claim his innocence and has denied plea deal offers. In February, the state attorney general took over the prosecution and dropped the possibility of the death penalty. Jury selection for the trial finally began in mid-September.
It has been about one year since film director Ava DuVernay released the documentary “13th.” This documentary is widely available on Netflix. Today, as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to unfold and national politics have veered towards a criminal justice system that yet again relies heavily on mass incarceration, 13th continues to provide useful context for conversations about race and criminal justice. At Carolina Justice Policy Center, our intern Molly Riesenberger recently watched 13th to share what she learned with our readers:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” – Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution
According to University of Connecticut professor Jelani Cobb, the drafters of the Constitution left “a loophole that was immediately exploited” in the 13th Amendment. Ava DuVernay’s documentary, 13th, connects this ambiguous clause to mass incarceration in America. The amendment abolished slavery, but the clause turned incarceration into the modern-day slavery. Here are ten things I learned from DuVernay’s film:
- When slavery was abolished, the millions of people responsible for the economic productivity in the south were freed. The south was left with the question: how do we rebuild? The answer was in the 13th African-Americans were arrested and imprisoned for minor crimes, then forced to provide the labor needed to rebuild the economy.
- In the land of the free, it’s ironic that we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. The documentary starts off with some striking statistics – the United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners.
- Let’s look at the numbers. In 1970, the prison population was 357,292. In 2014, the prison population was 2,306,200. Clearly, incarceration is not just a trend – it’s become a part of American culture.
- To break it down even further, African-American men have a significantly higher percentage of lifetime likelihood of imprisonment – one in 17 white males will do prison time, compared to only one in three African-American males.
- Following the civil war and the turn of the twentieth century, the film, ‘Birth of a Nation’ portrayed the African-American male as violent, animal-like, and evil. The film is widely known for being a catalyst to the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
- The film examines the effect of the various presidencies on criminalization. It starts with Nixon’s southern strategy – he recruits southern, poor, working-class whites into the Republican fold and criminalizes Blacks. The strategy can be summarized by this quote by Lee Atwater, “…you’re talking about cutting taxes and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the by-product of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
- Nixon was the first to coin the term “war on drugs,” but Reagan was the first to turn the term into a literal war. In the Reagan era, the war on drugs became a part of our modern culture, andBblack people became overrepresented in the news as criminals. The Nixon and Reagan administrations are responsible for the cycle of criminalizing African-Americans suffering from drug addictions, rather than increasing resources for treatment or rehabilitation.
- The 1994 Federal Crime Bill, created under Bill Clinton, deployed the latest technology and tactics to make communities safer. It basically led to the massive expansion of the prison system – it increased state funding for prisons, put 100,000 police officers on the street, and contributed to the exploding prison population. Clinton now realizes that this bill led to hyper-incarceration and was a mistake.
- One of the things that the documentary explains is ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council. This private club is made up of people who are both politicians and members of corporations. The council writes laws for the Republican Party, including Florida’s “Stand your Ground” law. They also are responsible for SB 1070, which gave the police the right to stop anyone they thought to be an immigrant. This kept CCA prisons overflowing with immigrant detainees. Oh, and – CCA is one of the corporations that helped ALEC write the immigration law.
- Not everyone goes to trial. If every single person had a trial, the entire system would shut down. It often comes down to: you can take this plea deal and go to jail for three years, or you can go to trial and go to jail for 30 years if you lose. As a result, 97% of people do not go to trial and instead take a plea bargain.
This film made me feel like we have regressed as a society: why are we accepting a modern form of slavery? How do we break the cycle of mass incarceration?
In a display of courage and commitment to justice, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens halted the execution of Marcellus Williams mere hours before he was scheduled to be executed on Tuesday. DNA testing raised questions about whether he had committed a murder during a 1998 burglary.
Williams’ attorney cited DNA evidence found on the murder weapon that matched another unknown person instead of Williams. Greitens issued the stay of execution in order to appoint a Gubernatorial Board of Inquiry to look into Williams’ claims of innocence. The five-member board will “consider all evidence presented to the jury, in addition to newly discovered DNA evidence, and any other relevant evidence not available to the jury.” News of the stay of execution was met with cheers by execution protesters outside of Governor Greitens’ office. Many attribute the stay to a very strong social media campaign.
In a released statement, Greitens said “a sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment. To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt.” We commend the stand Greitens has taken, but firmly believe that there is no way to ever ensure “confidence” in a death sentence. This case demonstrates the power of social media as a platform for change and reform.
North Carolina has not carried out an execution in 11 years, but still will not take the next logical step to abolition. As activist, social media is a powerful tool to use in the fight to abolish the death penalty once and for all. North Carolina legislators need to know that our state no longer wants or supports the death penalty.
No timeline has been set for this inquiry. Learn more about this case here.