Laws and the ability for the government and the people to abide by them define the society in which we live. Recently North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue and other officials stated that they would try and find a way to prevent the release of twenty prisoners the judicial court system stated should be freed. These prisoners who had been convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to life sentences, benefited from laws passed by the North Carolina General Assembly in the 1970’s which first defined a “life” term as 80 years, then halved all sentences. The Court of Appeals, in reaching its 2008 decision to free the inmates sentenced to life, was merely enforcing the law, and on October 9, 2009, the Supreme Court refused to reverse it.
Many individuals are angry and upset with this turn of events, but that hostility should not be directed to the convicts or the state’s judicial system, which acted appropriately in following the law. Members of the 1970’s General Assembly who passed the laws are the ones who should be held accountable for not having the foresight to predict the untoward outcome.
The important issue, however, is that all people, including elected officials, display a respect for the law, even when it favors the poor, disenfranchised, people of color, and even law-breakers. To try and find a way around the law and continue punishment which has been set aside is disingenuous and mocks the very foundation of our justice system… which in North Carolina is already selective and unjust based on Class and Color.
Governor Perdue publicly expressed that she was appalled at the Court’s decision and stated that she would try and find a way to keep the locked up. Attorney Staples Hughes put Perdue’s pronouncement into perspective when he stated, “Anybody that wants to live in a place where the sovereign or the dictator can decide after 30 years… ‘Well, you need more [time behind prison]’… can move to Somalia, Myanmar, and North Korea.”
Even the Opinion/Editorial page of the News & Observer, in its Sunday, October 18, 2009 column, titled “Out and about,” sided with the Court of Appeals, and not Governor Perdue who wants to keep the twenty, deemed to be entitled to freedom under the law, incarcerated in violation of law. The Executive Director of the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services Thomas Maher, perhaps put it best when he stated: “These inmates were punished because they didn’t abide by the law. Well, we should provide equal respect for the law and expect it to be applied fairly to these inmates.”
This unexpected and unpopular justice system episode exposes an unhealthy disrespect for the law by the very individual in the state who welds the most power. This, in a true democracy and a society based on the rule of law, is unacceptable. What is particularly troublesome is that this disrespect for the rule of law can be applied to other judicial decisions that do not curry favor with the people or the politicians.