Citizen Green: Roy Cooper’s sacrificial lamb

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

Voters generally size up political candidates based on small impressions. On the positive side of the ledger, it could be something as simple as a kind and encouraging word from the candidate to a small business owner, farmer or social worker. It’s hard to extrapolate any concrete policy objectives from such encounters, but they give the voter the sense that the candidates understand their challenges and is looking out for their interests.

On the negative side of this T-chart, a single decision can likewise poison a voter’s outlook on a candidate. Imagine for a moment that you’re a supporter of Kalvin Michael Smith, a black man from Winston-Salem who has been in prison for almost 18 years because of a conviction based on a police investigation that few city officials would try to defend.

Smith has been in prison for longer than Roy Cooper has been the state’s attorney general, giving up the best earning years of his life and the ability to be with his family. An independent review by retired FBI assistant director Chris Swecker found that the police investigation “was seriously flawed and woefully incomplete, thus calling into question whether the original trial jury rendered their verdict based on all the relevant and accurate facts of the case.” Swecker agreed with a finding by a citizens group that there was no credible evidence that Smith was at the scene of a crime where a pregnant woman was brutally beaten into a coma.

Cooper has ignored calls to overturn the case and grant Smith a new trial for at least three years. Prosecutors drop cases or decline to pursue charges all the time on the basis of acting “in the interest of justice” if they don’t believe there’s adequate evidence.

Considering Cooper’s aspirations to be North Carolina’s next governor, his studied disinterest in the Smith case looks an awful lot like a political calculation that he has less to lose by alienating Smith’s supporters than outraging conservative, white swing voters, who based on their support of law and order — and let’s face it, for many, straight-up racism — would be outraged to learn that a black man convicted of a brutal assault had received a new trial.

The forfeiture of a man’s liberty because the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in the state refuses to grant him a new trial, in the face of damning evidence that the case was botched, is not a small thing to Smith’s supporters. They can rightly make inferences into the candidate’s character and values based on what appears to his choice to do what is politically expedient instead of what’s right.

Cooper’s supporters may ask: Isn’t there something bigger at stake — the direction of North Carolina’s economy and educational system — than justice for one man, even racial justice? Maybe there is.

People who are dissatisfied with the hard-right turn of state government — urbanites, teachers, the LGBT community, advocates for the poor — are investing intense and abiding hope in Cooper, a Democrat who formally announced on Oct. 12 that he would challenge Republican incumbent Pat McCrory. Cooper has been described as an heir to the progressive legacy of Terry Sanford, who pursued pro-growth policies and largely steered the state away from the intransigent racism of Deep South states like Mississippi and Alabama during the 1960s.

The News & Observer, the state’s newspaper of record, editorialized on Oct. 17 that next year’s gubernatorial race “will be a referendum on ideas and ideals,” with far more at stake than the usual “jousts between ambitious politicians seeking to win more for their egos than for the people.”

McCrory must own a record of policies that have been hurtful to the poor — including refusing to expand Medicaid while cutting unemployment insurance — and hurtful to women by restricting access to abortion. He either has to own that record, or admit that the Republican leadership in the General Assembly, not he, is driving the state’s agenda.

Cooper sounded decidedly populist notes during his campaign announcement at Nash County Community College in Rocky Mount.

“Governor McCrory has the wrong priorities for North Carolina: Giving away the store to those at the top at the expense of the middle class and our schools,” he said. “He won’t find a way to keep good teachers, but he finds a way to pass tax giveaways to big corporations.”

The pitch sounds appealing, but we don’t really know the specific contents yet. Maybe it would be foolish to scorn Cooper based on his handling of the Smith case, but it’s useful to understand the political compromises involved in seeking the highest office in the state.

Politics will break your heart. By all means, get swept up in the fervor of the campaign. Celebrate when and if Cooper wins, but recognize that the luster will come off when the realities of governing set in.

  • joshua deaton

    “The pitch sounds appealing, but we don’t really know the specific contents yet.”

    Before learning about Smith, this was my biggest complaint about Roy Cooper. His populist rhetoric amounts to little more than platitudes that even NC Republicans would agree with. He has been very sparse on policy specifics. His website (roycooper.com) doesn’t even explain where he stands on specific issues.

  • Raleighite

    If the man has been convicted by a court, the Attorney General cannot just “overturn the sentence.” The Governor can.

  • Raleighite

    “Cooper has ignored calls to overturn the case and grant Smith a new trial for at least three years. Prosecutors drop cases or decline to pursue charges all the time on the basis of acting “in the interest of justice” if they don’t believe there’s adequate evidence.”

    This is in fact not the way the system works. If a court reversed the conviction, an AG can choose not to appeal. If the court orders a new trial, an AG can decline to prosecute the new trial, thus effectively letting the accused out of prison. But the AG cannot unilaterally reduce a prison sentence. The AG cannot unilaterally grant a new trial.

    Is your critique based on some objection to a motion for new trial filed by Smith? If so, then please detail what you are referring to, because the paragraph above just doesn’t make sense. You are essentially attacking Cooper for not exercising the power of the Governor’s Office, an office he does not hold.

    Yet.

    • Jordan Green

      Thanks for the opportunity to clarify. Cooper’s responsibility in this case rests on his legal opposition to granting Smith a new trial and his opposition to the federal court taking judicial notice of Swecker’s report. Certainly, the ultimate decision was in the hands of Judge Catherine Eagles, who indeed ruled against granting Smith a new trial. I would imagine that if Cooper had agreed with Smith that the original case was flawed and that a new trial was in order, Judge Eagles would have found that compelling, or at the very least worth considering. If Cooper has had a change of heart about the Smith case, he still has an opportunity to publicly express his regret, even if the window for legal intervention has closed. As an aside, it’s worth noting that Swecker is the chair of the Governor’s Crime Commission. If anyone has more credibility on matters of public safety and justice in the state of North Carolina, I can’t think of who it would be.

  • I could also argue that Cooper himself is the sacrificial lamb. Put it this way, Cooper is arguably the last of a certain breed of NC Democrats–those who came to power at the turn of the millennium when Jim Hunt exited the scene for the last time. After all, no one believed that the Dems were in any danger of losing either legislative chamber or many Council of State positions. Since NC is in a new era, the party has to change its tune especially since the business wing of the party that was faithful to people like Hunt have either themselves retired or switched parties.

    Sure, McCrory’s approval numbers are like the Titanic, but so are the General Assembly’s–and those guys are immune to a 2010-like wave. If anything, some of the voters who are disgruntled with the governor are more aligned with Tea Party bloggers who are mad that McCrory, Berger et. al. are not pushing enough regressive policies. The real issue is that there is nobody on the right who’s forcing Pat into a primary. I don’t think that the General Assembly’s condescending attitude towards anyone who’s not in their special club has trickled down to enough people yet.

    Meanwhile, Cooper is the last of an old generation of Democrats, so he has to take the bullet so to speak. A Cooper loss next year should (in theory anyway) force the state party to rebuild itself because whatever it’s doing now clearly hasn’t worked. In other words, the only way to combat legislature malfeasance is electing a new generation of Democrats in 2020 with something coherent (Cooper is more of a vote against the NCGOP than a vote for anything).

  • stephenbboyd

    An Attorney General can decide not to defend a conviction he or she believes to be unjust or unfairly obtained. However A. G. Cooper has defended Smith’s conviction since 2008, opposing a Motion for Appropriate Relief, through opposing a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court, and opposing yet another “A motion for discovery regarding a false affidavit filed in court by prosecutors. He and his office is have represented the state against Smith, because of a conflict of interest incurred by the Forsyth County’s District Attorney’s Office when it allegedly withheld evidence from the defense during the 1997 trial. Since significant evidence has been uncovered questioning the grounds of Smith’s conviction, Cooper has had these three opportunities–in court proceedings–to join with Smith and his counsel in a motion to vacate Smith’s conviction, but he has chosen, instead, to vigorously defend it. This is after the Duke University Law School Innocence Project raised critical questions, the comprehensive review by the Winston-Salem City Council empanelled Silk Plant Forest Citizens Review Committee, staffed by two veteran police detectives concluded that there is no credible evidence that Smith was even at the scene of the crime. Though Cooper hired Assistant F.B.I. Director Swecker to investigate the allegations of corruption in the State Bureau of Investigation Lab–and Swecker found nearly 200 cases of material errors in the conduct of that lab—Cooper has refused to read Swecker’s review of the Silk Plant Forest Case or to meet with Swecker about it. Many of us citizens, who would like to see justice done for Smith, crime victim, Jill Marker, and our community (the actual perpetrator of this heinous crime remains unaccounted for) believe Cooper’s refusal to pursue truth and justice contradicts Rule 3.8 NC Bar Association Rules of Conduct and Ethics that states that a prosecutor has an obligation as “a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate;…to seek justice, not merely to convict.” Cooper can and should, at any point that he believes an injustice has occurred, initiate further investigation or approach defense counsel to file a motion in court. The question, as Jordan Green rightly points out, is whether A.G. Cooper has the will to do so. A further question is whether North Carolina voters will demand that he do the job he has now, before electing him to a new one. For more about the case see http://freekalvinnow.org/