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DA Shaffer explains resignation from state commission

JENNA-LEY HARRISON
Staff Writer

Lincoln County District Attorney Rick Shaffer wants to set the record straight about the reasons for his recent withdrawal from Gov. Beverly Perdue’s Crime Commission.
He told the Times-News in a special interview Thursday that he felt Perdue’s veto last month of a bill containing amendments to the 2009 Racial Justice Act was “a devastating and troubling response.”
He believed the bill would have solved “a serious problem,” he said. A majority of the state’s district attorneys, from both sides of the political spectrum, backed the legislative piece. Shaffer, a Democrat, supported the Republican-led bill.
Under current law, inmates on death row have the opportunity to appeal their sentence, providing statistical evidence that racial discrimination was used when sentencing a murder defendant in another state case simultaneous to his own.
Shaffer pointed out that prior to the Racial Justice Act, a defendant had to show that only his specific case was “tainted” by racial discrimination in order to “receive relief from a death sentence.” After the act became law, he said a defendant was allowed to utilize statistics that showed race was a factor in the determination of any state case “imposed at the time” that person was convicted.
“This fact could be used to attack his (the defendant’s) judgment regardless of whether there is any evidence that his particular sentence was tainted by racial discrimination,” Shaffer said. “How can that person reasonably claim there was discrimination?”
He believes every case is different. “Statistics are only as good as the information going into the formulas you’re looking at,” he said, “You can’t put all the factors in that led to a death verdict.”
He noted that 154 of the 158 inmates currently on death row in North Carolina have filed racial justice motions in an effort to appeal their sentences, even when a majority of the cases involved defendants, victims and jurors all of the same race.
In Shaffer’s Crime Commission resignation letter to Perdue on Dec. 14, he noted the sadness he felt when talking with the families of murder victims — victims whom he said were “brutally murdered” including a police officer “who died begging for his life,” he said.
“There is no reasonable person who can argue that the judgments entered in those cases were the result of racial discrimination,” Shaffer noted in his letter.
If racial bias is found to exist in a case, the death penalty is exchanged for a lesser sentence, life in prison without parole. Prior to October 1994, when the legal system used “fair” sentencing statutes, Shaffer said a murder defendant had the opportunity to reduce his sentence or be paroled after a designated amount of time.
“Basically, life did not mean life,” he said.
However, after October 1994, when the law switched to what is known as “structured” sentencing, the option of parole was eliminated, preventing such an inmate from receiving any kind of “good time” or “gain time,” Shaffer said.
He added that he doesn’t understand how supporters of the Racial Justice Act can hold that a defendant who committed murder prior to October 1994, and who claims that the death sentence was imposed upon him due to racial bias, is getting a legal sentence through having his penalty decreased from death to life without parole. He said current law is allowing “unconstitutional provision.”
“The remedy of life without parole is greater than the sentence he (a defendant) could have legally received absent the discrimination,” Shaffer said. “There was no sentence of life without parole for crimes that occurred before October 1994.”
Shaffer noted his reasoning behind using the term “legal” versus “fair.”
“If they would have received a life sentence absent discrimination, a fair sentence would be a life sentence that meant he would be in prison until death,” he said. “A legal sentence of life, which doesn’t mean serving until one dies, is not necessarily fair from the perspective of the victim or society.”
Although Shaffer’s district, 27B, which covers Lincoln and Cleveland counties, has no inmates on death row at this time, Shaffer is distraught over the veto and the effects that could result from the Racial Justice Act as it currently stands.
“The impact of the law… is tremendous,” he said in his Crime Commission resignation letter to Perdue on Dec. 15.
“I was so opposed I could no longer serve under her on a board that dealt with crime issues in North Carolina,” he told the Times-News.
While Shaffer doesn’t anticipate Perdue asking him to rejoin the crime policy panel in the future, he said he would reconsider joining the commission under a different future governor.
“This is not a personality issue or issue with the commission,” he said, adding that the panel is “made up of good people who do good things.” He noted his resignation was “a way to express my utter disappointment with the governor’s decision.”
Shaffer believes that through the options granted death row inmates under the Racial Justice Act, a death penalty “freeze” has occurred across the state.
He said the number of cases that the state is having to look into, cases “where there is no question of guilt and no evidence of discrimination,” he stated in his resignation letter, is wasting money.
“We are spending tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on statistical experts,” Shaffer wrote. He said resources needed to “man the offices and prosecute cases” are being “sucked” from the system. He particularly pointed out that in Cumberland County alone it costs $50,000 to provide one statistical expert for an inmate trying to appeal a death sentence.
“That (amount) would have covered the salary of the person who used to answer the phone in Lincoln County,” Shaffer said.
The N.C. General Assembly reconvened in Raleigh on Wednesday for a chance to override Perdue’s veto. While the Senate was successful in canceling it with a 31-19 vote, the House was unable to do the same, according to various news media outlets. Now, through a special committee, House members said they plan to remain dedicated to issues related to the death penalty and racial discrimination by studying the two topics further in the future.

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