While we celebrate a major victor this year with the repeal of the death penalty in Maryland and the steadily mounting pressure against capital punishment across the country continues, there are a few outlier states where vocal elected officials seem determined to continue the use of this deeply flawed, unnecessary and outdated practice.
The legislatures in two such states, Florida and North Carolina, generated headlines earlier this year with controversial actions.
The “Timely Justice Act”
According to Mark Elliott, Executive Director of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP), “The intent of the Timely Justice Act is to speed up executions, increase the number of executions, and limit access to the courts by those sentenced to death. It will certainly raise the risk of executing an innocent person, if not make it a certainty.”
There was a lot of politics involved in the bill’s passage. Mark observed, “The Governor’s new chief legal advisor on the death penalty was reported to have had a role in drafting the legislation. It was fast tracked. Legislators had no time to understand the bill or its impact, nor did the public.” He is very concerned about its potential impact.
This measure is particularly troubling given that Florida has more death row exonerations than any other state. Since 1976, Florida has executed 82 prisoners and exonerated 24 death row inmates, or one exoneration for every three executions. In addition, Florida handed down 22 new death sentences in 2012 out of 78 nationally. That is more than one out of four new death sentences in the entire country.
In Florida, FADP and its partners organized a campaign urging Gov. Rick Scott to veto the Timely Justice Act. The response to this campaign was overwhelming. The Governor's office tabulated 15,021 calls, letters, and emails for a veto and just 15 for signing the bill. That's 1,000 to 1 calling for a veto! Nonetheless, the governor signed the bill.
Repeal of the Racial Justice Act
In 2009 North Carolina blazed a trail by becoming the first state to pass a Racial Justice Act. The intent of the law was to ensure that if North Carolina is to have a death penalty, every effort would be made to guarantee that racial bias played no role in that system.
A series of groundbreaking cases filed in response to the Act exposed systemic racial bias in North Carolina’s capital sentencing. At trial attorneys showed strong evidence of intentional efforts by prosecutors across the state to exclude black jurors from capital trials. As a result, four death sentences were reduced by a judge to life in prison without parole.
Despite a successful effort by the Act’s opponents to amend the Racial Justice Act and reduce its scope in 2012, state legislators voted to repeal the law in its entirety and Gov. Pat McCrory signed the repeal measure. Once again politics played a huge role in the repeal effort.
During the 2010 elections for the state legislature, Tarrah Callahan, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (NCCADP), said that many candidates used “viciously racist electoral materials the likes of which had not been seen here in decades” against those who voted for the Racial Justice Act.
“It’s a real tragedy,” Tarrah commented, “that legislators want to speed up executions rather than address the very real problems in our criminal justice system.” She explained that in addition to the documented racial bias unearthed by the Racial Justice Act, there are a host of outstanding issues with the death penalty in North Carolina – including the use of tainted evidence from the state crime lab and claims of actual innocence that have never been fully investigated.
The Abolition Movement Organizes
Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty’s Mark Elliott observed that there has been “an outpouring of energy, enthusiasm, and outrage over the Timely Justice Act. The media has been nearly unanimous in opposing this legislation, alarmed by its potential consequences.”
The role of FADP is to involve these new people and energy into existing abolition organizations in different regions of the state. There have been active groups in Gainesville and Tallahassee for decades as well as a new effort in the I-4 corridor of central Florida (i.e., Tampa and Orlando) and a partnership with Barry University in Miami.
“We are building a grassroots base around the state, particularly in communities of color, in different regions and within those regions.” Mark noted. “We need to connect these nodes across the state in order to take the next step, pursuing legislation.”
A good example of this new base building effort is the Justice for Jacksonville Coalition whose mission is to “eliminate the extreme and disproportionate use of the death penalty in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit.” FADP is working with Amnesty International, the ACLU, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and other community partners in Duval County which was second in the nation in the number of new death sentences in 2012. In recent years Duval County has produced nearly half of Florida’s new death sentences.
There has been a strong backlash in North Carolina as well as in Florida. Large numbers of North Carolina citizens are taking to the streets to protest the repeal of the Racial Justice Act as well as other significant actions taken by conservative legislators this year. The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, launched a Moral Monday movement to protest the wave of regressive legislation in NC, including the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.
For 13 consecutive Mondays from May till the end of the legislative session, hundreds of protestors gathered in Raleigh to oppose these changes. Over 900 ministers, teachers, politicians, and civil rights leaders were arrested in these nonviolent protests.
Once the legislative sessions ended on July 26th, organizers decided to stage more decentralized actions across the state. Rev. Barber is working to coordinate Moral Monday demonstrations in each of the state’s 13 Congressional districts. Thousands participated in August rallies in Asheville and Charlotte.
In November another will be held in Salisbury, with others planned across the state in the coming months. Many abolitionists have participated in these Moral Monday demonstrations and plan to continue doing so.
In Florida the “Timely Justice Act” has helped fuel a renewed and more robust surge of opposition to the death penalty. And in the wake of the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial for the death of Trayvon Martin, civil rights organizations, communities of faith, student activists and others are uniting around a broad civil rights and criminal justice reform agenda. Floridians are showing that they will not stand silently by.
In North Carolina, the repeal of the Racial Justice Act has eliminated the right of 150 death row inmates to sue under a valid law and is likely to create further delays as these issues must be sorted out by North Carolina courts.
Rather than speed up executions, Tarrah remarked, “the legislature has added another layer of litigation to an already overburdened court system. They have done nothing but created a bigger mess for taxpayers.”