Former Republican North Carolina Chief Justice Comes Out Against the Death Penalty | News

Former Republican North Carolina Chief Justice Comes Out Against the Death Penalty

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Beverly Lake, as a Republican candidate for chief justice of the NC Supreme Court in 2000. - ALEX MANESS
  • Alex Maness
  • Beverly Lake, as a Republican candidate for chief justice of the NC Supreme Court in 2000.
In a Huffington Post blog yesterday that was reposted by NC Policy Watch today, I. Beverly Lake III—a former justice on the N.C. Supreme Court who served as an associate for from 1994–2000 and then as its chief justice until 2006, and who unsuccessfully ran for governor against Jim Hunt in 1980—wrote that "protecting the innocent from a death sentence isn't enough" and implied that the death penalty "probably cannot" ever be constitutional under the Eight Amendment. 

Lake sat on the court during thirty-four of the forty-three executions carried out in North Carolina since 1977; since leaving the court, he's become an advocate for criminal justice reform through his work in helping to establish the Innocence Inquiry Commission, but this op-ed is his strongest stance against the death penalty yet. 

After establishing his former bonafides as a "tough on crime, pro-law enforcement individual," he writes:

After decades of experience with the law, I have seen too much, and what I have seen has impacted my perspective. First, my faith in the criminal justice system, which had always been so steady, was shaken by the revelation that in some cases innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes. The increased availability of DNA testing in the early 2000s highlighted this problem so clearly to me. I spent the next decade working with others to devise systems and develop task forces dedicated to the prevention of wrongful convictions in North Carolina. I take, I believe, justifiable pride in the fact that North Carolina established the first state Innocence Inquiry Commission in the country. Numerous legal experts publicly acknowledge that the safeguards that have been implemented in North Carolina are wildly successful. However, one thing we did not adequately address is that individuals with intellectual disabilities, mental illness, and other impairments are more likely to be wrongfully convicted. The case of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown makes that point vividly clear. McCollum was 19 and Brown was 15 when they confessed to the rape and murder of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie. Both men are intellectually disabled, which greatly increased their susceptibility to false confession. As a result, they spent 31 years in prison, including time on death row, for a crime they didn’t commit.

Lake's op-ed comes as the Supreme Court this week deices whether or not to take up the case of Lamondre Tucker, a Louisiana man with an IQ of 74 who murdered his ex-girlfriend when he was eighteen. Back in September, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld his death sentence. Lake mentions Tucker specifically:

Taken together, these factors indicate that he is most likely just as impaired as those individuals that the Court has determined it is unconstitutional to execute. Yet, because of a variety of systemic factors, including ineffective legal representation, Tucker sits on death row. Ten former State Supreme Court justices signed an Amicus brief last month questioning the constitutionality of Tucker’s death sentence due to his impairments. Today I join my colleague’s call.

In conclusion, he writes:

Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot.
Over the past several years, the abolition movement has picked up steam; although thirty-one states have the death penalty, six states since 2007 have repealed it, and four states have a governor-imposed moratorium. Last year, the conservative Nebraska unicameral legislature overrode the governor's veto to repeal the death penalty; later, a petition drive forced the issue to the ballot in November.

North Carolina hasn't executed anyone since 2006 due to a decision by the North Carolina Medical Board to bar its doctors from being present, but last year, the General Assembly passed the "Restoring Proper Justice Act," designed to restart executions.

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