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Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights, helps commemorate the passage of the N.C. Racial Justice Act

Cameron Todd Willingham was executed in Texas after serving 12 years in prison for arson. The fire, which caused the death of his three young daughters, was an accident, The New Yorker recently reported.

In Michigan, a judge told a defendant that he wished that state had the death penalty, and he would not hesitate, if given the power, to impose it immediately. Seventeen years later, DNA led to the exoneration of Eddie Joe Lloyd, who was charged with rape and murder.

The death penalty, said Stephen Bright, is one of the great moral issues facing our society.

Darryl Hunt is an example of why the criminal justice system needs to have some humility. We do make mistakes. It is a human system.

Bright, who spoke March 31 to the Wake Forest School of Law, made his point by paraphrasing Winston Churchill. The degree of civilization found in a society, Bright said, can ultimately be measured by how it treats the least among us.

“I don’t think, under that standard, that we’re doing terribly well.”

Bright, president and senior counsel for the Southern Center for Human Rights, is a nationally-recognized expert in litigating death penalty cases who teaches at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown universities. The event, “Race, Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty,” was sponsored by the Wake Forest Innocence and Justice Clinic.

A panel discussion followed Bright’s lecture, which was presented at law schools throughout North Carolina and sponsored by the N.C. Coalition for a Moratorium to commemorate the passage of the N.C. Racial Justice Act. The N.C. Racial Justice Act is a unique piece of legislation in American death penalty jurisprudence. The bill basically allows for a court to review whether racial bias led to a capital prosecution or a death sentence. N.C. A&T State University will host the program Friday, April 16.

Bright lauded the Wake Forest Innocence and Justice Clinic and the state’s Innocence and Inquiry Commission – the only such organization in the country — for its work, including that of Mark Rabil, who was instrumental in the release of Darryl Hunt. Hunt, who served with Rabil on the panel March 31, spent 19 years in prison after he was being wrongfully convicted of rape and murder.

“Darryl Hunt is an example of why the criminal justice system needs to have some humility,” Bright said. “We do make mistakes. It is a human system.”

Scientific breakthroughs in the use of DNA evidence has led to the exoneration of hundreds of people who had already been convicted, but it’s not a panacea, Bright said. In fact, biological evidence is present in only 10 percent of the cases. “In the other 90 percent of the cases … we’ll never know.” The fact that North Carolina is the only state in the U.S. with an innocence commission doesn’t speak well for the other 49, said Bright, who referred to the need to pursue innocence using investigative means beyond DNA evidence.

The U.S., he said, has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. Some 2.3 million women, men and children are either in jail or in prison.

“One of the reasons the criminal justice system doesn’t work as well as it should is because it’s completely overpowered by the number, the staggering number, of people being processed by the system.”

There is no such thing, he said, as a small crime.

Bright said we can learn much about a country or a community by examining how they treat the homeless. Do they accept the practice of torture? Do they kill people?

“A lot of countries in our world have decided they do not kill people. In fact, almost all industrialized societies in the world have decided they do not kill people. Most of them will not extradite people who are caught in their countries to countries that kill people, because they feel it is wrong to do so.”

Those countries realize, he said, that those practices are degrading not only to those who are killed and tortured but to the society that inflicts the punishment. “It tells you about a society that has so little reverence for life that it would kill a human being. It doesn’t see any element of redemption.” Only a handful of countries – China, the U.S., Iran and Saudi Arabia — carry out 90 percent of the worldwide executions, he said. “You can tell something about a country, a society, by the company it keeps.”

Race and the death penalty have been connected throughout the history of this county, Bright said. A person of color is still more likely to be stopped driving a car, more likely to be denied bail, more likely to be charged, more likely to receive a tougher sentence and higher bail and more likely to get the death penalty, Bright said.

What states have the death penalty today and which ones don’t are related to race. “When the enslaved population is greater than the white population, racialized violence was essential in maintaining dominance,” he said, referring to states such as Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina during the Civil War.

After the war, states used minor infractions of so-called laws to arrest black people and, in effect, maintain slaves. “The economic health of the South was built on ‘leased’ slaves.” An anti-lynching law has never been enacted, and “legal lynchings,” when the desire of the mob takes precedence over truth and justice, have scarred our history. He cited landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions such as the Scottsboro boys cases involving nine nine black men who were charged with raping a white woman.

“That’s our history, and the question is: Can we escape our history today?”

– By John Trump