Raleigh, N.C. — Reform of North Carolina's court system was expected to be on the agenda this weekend at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's annual convention in Wilmington.
NAACP officials pointed to a parade of recent cases that they said raise questions about the system.
“Only the guilty should go to jail,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state’s NAACP.
The NAACP pushing to get charges dropped against James Johnson, who is accused in the June 2004 rape and murder of Brittany Willis, a Wilson teen. No DNA or physical evidence connect Johnson to the crimes, and a man convicted of the crimes confessed to committing them alone.
The Administrative Office of the Courts will appoint a special prosecutor to the case.
In the Duke lacrosse case, Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong was disbarred for not giving exculpating evidence to the defense. In another case, Dwayne Dail spent 18 years proclaiming his innocence from behind bars before new DNA evidence cleared him of rape.
And this week, murder charges were dropped against Floyd Brown - 14 years after he was locked away in a psychiatric hospital. Attorneys and expert witnesses challenged the validity of a written confession by Brown, who has an IQ of 50.
Peg Dorer, executive director of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said those cases are the exception, not the rule.
“I don’t think we had a whole systemic problem,” she said. “Our system is not a very rapid system, and it is overloaded. I think we should always be questioning the system, but I have a great deal of confidence in it.”
The 2007 General Assembly passed a law giving the governor more power over elected judges and DA's. If a judge or DA is disbarred, the governor can remove them from office immediately.
The NAACP is also calling for increased ethical standards for lawyers. The group wants lawyers' organizations, including the State Bar Association, to add language to their bylaws saying prosecutors in criminal cases should not discriminate based on race in administering justice.
Bill Underwood, an attorney with the Mecklenburg County District's Attorney Office, said even if North Carolina's courts do not have a system-wide problem, they still have an image problem in light of recent missteps.
Checks and balances are always evolving in the legal system, he said.
“I’m hoping that we're going to address these problems with the intelligence we have and with dedication to re-creating the common vision that I think’s gotten a little obscure,” Underwood said.