Friday, August 27, 2010

Supremes: Improvidently or not, inmates will remain locked up

The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled it does not have the authority to tell the NC Department of Correction that it has to apply controversial time off to the sentences of inmates sentenced to live in the 1970s -- and thus the state does not have to release them. It's a big victory for Gov. Bev Perdue, who made an issue of it last fall and forced the Supreme Court to reconsider the issue after it first decided a discretionary review it had agreed to had been "improvidently allowed."

The court ruled 5-2 today against releasing the inmates. Perdue's office released the following:

“We can all sleep a little sounder tonight knowing that violent prisoners will not be released into our communities without review or supervision.
"One hundred and thirty three violent criminals will remain behind bars because of today’s decision.
“I stood up for what I believed was right for North Carolina, and I thank the victims, their families, and law enforcement who stood up with me.”

Perdue's opposition to releasing the inmates came after three conservative judges of the NC Court of Appeals ruled that the time-off policies did apply to a number of inmates, and ordered their sentences recalculated by the courts.

The state appealed; the Supreme Court first agreed to hear the case, then issued a one-page statement saying it had improvidently allowed that appeal.

Judge Ripley Rand followed the dictates of the Court of Appeals and ordered two inmates released in December.

So Perdue's administration appealed again to the Supreme Court, and this time got a hearing on the issue in February. Today's decision came out of that hearing.  Justice Robert Edmunds wrote the decision for the majority.  Justices Patricia Timmons-Goodson and Robin Hudson dissented.

Providence this time, I guess.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ross at UNC -- but if baseball comes calling...

Tom Ross, the former judge, courts administrator and foundation president who has been president of Davidson College for the past three years, is said to be the choice of the search committee of the UNC Board of Governors to succeed Erskine Bowles as head of the UNC system. If that's the case, he'll be the second Greensboro boy in a row to head the 17-campus UNC system. Like Bowles, Ross grew up in Greensboro, where his father was with Burlington Industries.

Ross is also politically savvy, having been a Democratic Party official in his home county and served as chief of staff for former U.S. Rep. Robin Britt, D-N.C. If I remember correctly, Ross is a distant cousin of former Gov. Jim Hunt, who himself was born in Guilford County though he has lived most of his life in Wilson County.

THURSDAY UPDATE: Susan Donaldson Ross, Tom Ross's spouse, says that story about the Hunt connection is not correct. Jim Hunt is related to the Ross family of Pleasant Garden in Guilford County, she says. Tom Ross is related to the Ross family from Charlotte.

Hunt, in fact, appointed Ross to be judge of the N.C.Superior Court judge iin 1984-- the youngest such judge at the time. I ran into Hunt at lunchtime today and told him I heard we were about to have a new UNC president. He winked and said, "We've got a great future."  D.G. Martin, by the way, also a Davidson grad, had mentioned Tom Ross as a candidate for the UNC job way back in February.

Ross's elevation puts him in a better spot to watch one of his favorite things: UNC basketball. Ross went to Davidson and is an avid Wildcats fan, of course, but he also loves Tar Heel basketball, and he and his wife Susan kept a condo in Chapel Hill during his foundation days so he could watch the Heels.

Funny thing, though. He once quipped that the only other job in life he really wanted , beyond president of Davidson College, might be Commissioner of Baseball. Well, me too. Baseball could sure use his talent and judgment.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wanted: SBI agents. Call Roy

If you've kept up with the newspaper series "Agents' Secrets: Junk Science, Tainted Testimony at the SBI," you already know that there's deep trouble at the State Bureau of Investigation and particularly with the shoddy work performed by blood and bullet analysts in the SBI crime lab and misleading or distorted courtroom testimony by agents. The previous crime lab director is being reassigned, the former SBI director has been given another job, an analyst has been suspended and a new SBI director has been brought in.

Turns out the SBI is looking for a few good people to work there, too. This ad has appeared in the Raleigh classifieds:

NC Department of Justice is currently recruiting SBI Agents. Applications will be accepted from August 12 thorugh September 22. Refer to website: for complete information.

  (You'll have to hunt a little to find the SBI connection about the jobs).

Doesn't say, but I'm guessing honesty, integrity, science background, competence and high ethical standards would be a big help for a candidate.

Monday, August 23, 2010

UNC-TV director: Where are the news media?

At the height of the tensions in the General Assembly over its demand for copies of videos and research from UNC-TV on Alcoa Power Generating Inc.'s proposed renewal of its license to operate the Yadkin River hydroelectric plants, UNC-TV's Director and General Manager Tom Howe was wondering where other news media were on this story. In an email released after Alcoa asked for copies of the station's e-mails dealing with the Alcoa story, Howe on July 6 wrote several staff members:

"Right -- why hasn't public radio in the state done anything on the story -- why hasn't any of the major newspaper in the state done anything major on the story -- why hasn't any of the major television stations in the state done anything on the story -- why haven't any of the major television news networks done anything on the story -- why hasn't any of the major news magazines done anything on the story -- why hasn't any of the states magazines done anything on the story -- why haven't any of the general assembly reserach staff done anyhing on the story....

"Our NORTH CAROLINA NOW segments will be the most compreenensive coverage of this done by anyone -- seems to me we can stand on that with pride."

Howe raises a good question. Although UNC-TV later took three video segments off its website after concluding that they didn't reflect the station's usual standards, his question is a good one. The Charlotte Observer has opined on this topic in editorials and columns, and reporters from the Observer and The News & Observer have published a number of stories as well. Yet there's still a lot of reporting to be done on the environmental impacts and health consequences in this story, and Howe's frustration over being criticized by others in the press is understandable. UNC-TV worked on the story for a long time and wound up getting burned in various quarters for succumbing to the legislature's demands and for waiving its usual editorial control.

For more on this, see my Sunday column here.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Duke Prez: Some thoughts require more than a Tweet

Duke University President Richard Brodhead dropped by the N&O Wednesday to chat with reporters and editors about the institution and its expereience in austerity and other matters. You can read reporter Eric Ferrari's account of that session here. One thing that Brodhead talked about was the impact of technology on the student body, and he recalled that when he came to Duke in 2004, Facebook was new and the incoming freshman class was already aware of their classmates because they had gotten together via Facebook.

Someone asked whether Brodhead used Twitter to communicate with his students. Brodhead smiled and observed, "I believe some thoughts require more words" (than a Tweet -- maximum characters 140, though I have read the optimal length is 110).

He also ventured that the various social media and proliferation of information sources available on some electronic gizmos was having another effect on the college experience. "Nowaday, you have to teach people to pay attention" for longer periods of time than they're used to. That must be tough enough in a one-hour class. How about some of those once-a-week three-hour classes? If I'd had a longer attention span in my college days, I might have had more than a passing acquaintance with an A.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Trouble at SBI? Call UNCC prof

Former Charlotte lawyer D.G. Martin has some advice for N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper over the State Bureau of Investigation and restore the reputation of that agency and its crime lab: Call Kathy Reichs, the UNC Charlotte professor, forensic anthropologist and successful author of a series of crime novels.

The SBI and particularly its lab are under fire after a four-part investigative series published in The News & Observer of Raleigh and the Charlotte Observer over the past week. The series pointed to significant problems both in the quality of science used at the lab and in the judgement and performance of some SBI agents and lab analysts. Among them: doctored reports, questionable confessions, misleading court testimony, botched tests and practices that have helped send innocent people to prison and allowed the real criminal to go free.

Martin, former vice present of the University of North Carolina system and a former Democratic candidate for Congress and the U.S. Senate, is the moderator of N.C. Bookwatch, a UNC-TV program on North Carolina authors and on books about North Carolina. He notes that Reich's 13th novel in the Temperance Brennon series, "Spider Bones," will be in stores soon, and that Reichs writes from the particular perspective of a forensics professional who teaches anthropology and who works with law enforcement agencies in Montreal.

Martin writes in his weekly column, "Is there a helpful lesson here for us, as North Carolina faces a challenge in rebuilding confidence in the SBI Crime Lab’s work?

“'Spider Bones'” reminds us of one possibly very helpful fact. North Carolina has at least one person whose training and experience has taken her to crime labs all over the world.

"If I were the Attorney General, I would give Kathy Reichs a call today."

Here's Martin's full column:


The furor about the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime labs, the history and culture of Lumbee Indians in and around Robeson County, and a best selling North Carolina author’s new novel. Can we bring all these themes together in one column?

I am going to try and, while I am at it, I will throw in a connection to one of my favorite home-cooking “Interstate” eateries.

Kathy Reichs’s “Spider Bones” hits the bookstore shelves in a few days. It is the 13th in Reich’s popular Temperance Brennan series. Like Reichs, her fictional character, Brennan, is a forensic anthropologist. They are models for the “Bones” TV series.

Readers of “Spider Bones” will get an education on the proper role of professionals who use their expertise to help law enforcement agencies solve crimes.

They will also get a great story, much of which takes place in familiar territory—in Charlotte and in Robeson County. Reichs often takes her readers to Charlotte, where she has been a professor of anthropology at UNC-Charlotte and where she and Temperance Brennan live. She and Brennan also live part-time in Montreal, where each of them work with Canadian law enforcement agencies. As forensic anthropologists they can often discover important information from the examination of the bones of crime victims.

When the “Spider Bones” story begins, Brennan is in Canada. She gets an assignment to help investigate and identify a dead body that turns up near a small town south of Montreal. A fingerprint check ties the body to an American, John Lowery. But John Lowery was killed during the war in Viet Nam and is buried in Lumberton, or so everyone thought. So Brennan has to go to Lumberton to begin the effort to determine whose bones were actually buried under John Lowery’s gravestone.

(While she is in Lumberton, Brennan stops at Fullers Old Fashioned Barbecue. “Ignoring the buffet, I ordered my usual. Barbecued pork, cole slaw, fries, and hush puppies. A tumbler of sweet tea the size of a silo.” This stop is not critical to the plot, but it is good information for anyone looking for home-cooking just off I-95)

To solve the mystery of the bones in Lowery’s grave, Brennan goes to Hawaii, where she partners with the U.S. military’s Joint POW/ MIA Accounting Command, which strives to recover and identify Americans who have died in past conflicts.

Along the way, Brennan uses her forensic skills to help solve several other crimes and identify the remains of other victims. And the reader learns some of the consequences of unprofessional crime lab work.

Readers also learn that forensic science, while a great help in providing clues to help solve crimes, is not always appropriate for proving guilt in court. Sometime scientists, when presenting evidence, have to admit that they are not absolutely sure what the evidence proves. Their roles as scientists and advocates can conflict.

And, as the reader learns in “Spider Bones,” even identifications based on fingerprints or DNA matches with relatives are not foolproof.

North Carolina readers have an advantage. When they see the Lowery name and Robeson County, they may guess, before other readers, that John Lowery is a Lumbee Indian. They will be prepared for a little plot twist that depends on his Native American DNA.

Is there a helpful lesson here for us, as North Carolina faces a challenge in rebuilding confidence in the SBI Crime Lab’s work?

“Spider Bones” reminds us of one possibly very helpful fact. North Carolina has at least one person whose training and experience has taken her to crime labs all over the world.

If I were the Attorney General, I would give Kathy Reichs a call today.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Coastal group: 'Where do you stand, Bev?'

Gov. Bev Perdue's office has said the governor supports North Carolina's longtime ban on hardened structures along the coastline, which has helped the state avoid the mistakes of other coastal state that allow seawalls that bring erosion problems to their neighbors. Now the influential N.C. Coastal Federation is prodding Perdue to keep her public stance on seawalls, jetties and other hardened structures in mind when she appoints members to vacancies on the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission. It's the 2010 version of Jesse Helms' 1984 question to Jim Hunt: "Where do you stand, Jim?"

Todd Miller, executive director of the federation, noted in an e-mail to Perdue's staff that her new appointees or reappointed members will demonstrate whether she meant what she said. The commission meets next months and will discuss whether to revise or maintain its traditional view on seawalls. "Actions speak louder than words," wrote Miller. "It will be wonderful if the Governor makes appointments who will work to uphold her public statements in support of the state’s current prohibition on these structures on our beautiful beaches and inlets."

There's a lot going on behind the scenes. The state Senate has voted to allow exceptions to the ban on seawalls, particularly with construction of a low rock groins at coastal inlets to try to minimize natural beach erosion at places like Figure Eight Island or Ocean Isle. But the House has not voted on the issue; Speaker Joe Hackney has supported the ban on seawalls.

Last year the Coastal Resources Commission completed its review of the seawall ban. After receiving a consultant's study, the commission outlined steps it would take if the legislature authorized terminal groins, but the commission stopped short of recommending that the state change its longtime policy. One commission member seeking reappointment pushed the commission to take another look at the issue in September.

Here's Miller's e-mail to the governor's staff:

I understand that Governor Perdue may make her CRC appointments very soon. I wanted to make sure you and Al know just how very concerned we are about these appointments in case they are made before we have a chance to sit down and talk over policy issues.

I’ve attached a letter to the Governor with our recommendations for these appointments. Also, below are some emails that I’ve sent to Jackie. We talked with Jackie and Jennifer back in May about our concerns on this, and then have had two follow-up meetings with Britt as well.

These seven appointments will decide whether the majority of the fifteen CRC members support or disagree with the Governor’s position on terminal groins. One member in particular who is seeking reappointment (Renee Cahoon) is a very vocal advocate of groins. As the last item of business at the last CRC meeting in July (under new and old business late in the day), she tried to have the Commission re-consider its previous vote on the issue in an effort to have it take a pro-groin stance. The Commission’s chair (Bob Emory) stopped that discussion, but it’s now scheduled as the first Agenda item for the CRC meeting in September.

This upcoming meeting is likely to be the first one after Governor Perdue makes here seven appointments. If at this first meeting the Commission votes to support terminal groins, this huge coastal policy shift by the Commission will be placed right on the front doorstep of the Governor. Such a vote will beg the question of why did the Governor appoint people to this Commission who so publicly and aggressively disagree with her publicly held policy position on terminal groins.

This issue is major headline and editorial news throughout North Carolina. I hope the Governor is fully briefed about the direct connection between her CRC appointments and how this issue is managed by her Administration.

Actions speak louder than words. It will be wonderful if the Governor makes appointments who will work to uphold her public statements in support of the state’s current prohibition on these structures on our beautiful beaches and inlets.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Dems for GOP Hall of Fame?

Carter Wrenn, the well-known Republican political strategist who writes one of the most interesting blogs on N.C. politics along with Democrat Gary Pearce at, has pointed out the same thing that a lot of folks have been mulling over lately: While state Republican leaders are calling for heads to roll at the Democrat-controlled State Board of Elections, the plain fact is that the board of elections and its staff have done a pretty good job of highlighting campaign wrongdoing by major Democratic figures over the past decade and publicizing their misdeeds. Makes you wonder whether Republican leaders really want the Democratic leadership on the board replaced, given that they've helped send a Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture (Meg Scott Phipps) and a Democratic Speaker of the House (Jim Black) to prison and they've fined former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley $100,000 and referred his case to the district attorney for possible criminal action.

This isn't to say that State Elections Board Chairman Larry Leake of Asheville hasn't done some dumb things. He has taken some steps that look like he's trying to help Gov. Bev Perdue, including spending a wad on chartering a private plane to fly him to Raleigh and back one afternoon to supervise an interview so he could get back home for a family function, and in another case ordering a board investigator to finish a report without interviewing a former Perdue aide who wasn't immediately available. That aide was later interviewed.

Those steps don't exactly look good. But Republicans have probably benefitted from the board's exposes of Democratic wrongdoing, and those benefits may show up starkly this fall in legislative elections. Leake and the board's executive director, Gary Bartlett, ought to be candidates for the Republican Party Hall of Fame, Wrenn wrote.

Here's the full text of what Wrenn had to say:

A Cesspool of Corruption?

Carter Wrenn posted on August 10, 2010 11:54

Back when Beverly Perdue was running for Governor, just before the election I needed a piece of election law clarified before I ran two ads – so I called the State Board of Elections. I wasn’t too hopeful. I thought, Here I am asking a bunch of Democrats about running ads attacking a Democrat – so what do you think they’re going to tell you? I figured, at best, I would have to wait until months after the election for an answer.

But the Election Board’s Executive Director, Gary Bartlett, and his staff (including Kim Strach) didn’t beat around the bush a bit. They gave me a blunt straight answer that didn’t cut Perdue any slack and I made the ads.

The Democrat appointed State Elections Board has been investigating and pillorying Democrats for going on seven years now and the whole time it hasn’t pilloried a single leading Republican. The Board investigated Democratic Secretary of Agriculture Meg Scott Phipps, Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Black and Democratic Governor Mike Easley. Its televised hearings into Democratic corruption made Chairman Larry Leake and Director Gary Bartlett potential candidates for the Republican Party Hall of Fame.

So it was surprising to open the newspaper the other morning and read Republicans calling for Leake and Bartlett to be fired, saying they’ve whitewashed a scandal involving Democratic Governor Bev Perdue.

My guess is the next words we hear will be the Democrats saying, Sure. Fine. Just give us one second to get out a pen to sign the order.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Should Marshall want Obama to help? Might help, analyst says

If you missed last week's political flap over whether N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall wants President Barack Obama's campaign help this year in her bid to unseat Republican incumbent Sen. Richard Burr, you missed what looks like a pretty big gaffe. Marshall declined to say in a recent interview whether she wanted Obama's help, and the exchange looked pretty lame. Later she tried to fix the damage, issuring a statement that she would welcome his help. Republicans loved it -- and followers of NC politics can already hear the question: Where do you stand, Elaine?

But Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling looked more closely at the numbers, and concludes that Marshall might benefit in a small way from embracing Obama's help despite the fact his numbers are not good. Why? Because among those undecideds who might vote for Marshall, Obama did very well in 2008. Among those unlikely to support her anyway, embracing Obama's help wouldn't hurt because she wasn't likely to draw those votes.

Here's Jensen's take:

There was a bunch of hubbub Friday about whether Elaine Marshall would or would not want to campaign with Barack Obama. Should she want to? Our numbers can make an argument in either direction but ultimately the answer is probably yes.

In June we found that 30% of voters in the state would be more likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by President Obama while 47% said they would be less likely to and 21% said it wouldn't make a difference either way. Republicans (80%) responded more negatively to an Obama endorsement than Democrats did positively (50%) and 46% of independents said they'd be less inclined to vote for someone endorsed by Obama to only 18% who said more likely.

If you look at those numbers in a vacuum the obvious conclusion would be that Marshall shouldn't let Obama anywhere near him. But another angle to look at it from is who the undecided voters are in the Senate race. Right now 49% of them are Democrats and only 30% are Republicans. They voted for Obama by a 51/43 margin and they still approve of him 48/44. With the folks who haven't decided how to vote yet Obama's a net plus.

You could make the argument that bringing Obama in might hurt Marshall with the folks supporting her who disapprove of Obama but there basically are none of them- only 4% of voters who disapprove of Obama are planning to vote for Marshall. And similarly only 5% of voters who do approve of Obama are planning to vote for Burr.

All in all it doesn't make a big difference either way but Marshall could probably get some small benefit from Obama.