Opponent Ken Spaulding open to excessive force database and other proposed reforms
by Jordan Green
The banner hanging from the stage in Dillard Auditorium on the campus of Winston-Salem State University on Feb. 18 said everything: “NC Attorney General Roy Cooper: Kalvin Michael Smith’s Black Life Matters.”
About 125 college students from Winston-Salem State University, a historically black institution that is part of the UNC System, gathered with peers from Wake Forest University and Salem College for a rally demanding that Cooper file a motion to vacate Smith’s sentence.
Cooper is a moderate Democrat running for governor this year on a law-and-order image burnished through 12 years serving as the state’s attorney general. Smith is a 44-year-old black man who was convicted of brutally beating a white store clerk in Winston-Salem in 1995. Subsequently, a review by the Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee, which was empaneled by the city, found there was no evidence that Smith was even at the scene of the crime and stated that they did not have confidence in the police investigation leading to his conviction. A second review by retired Assistant FBI Director Chris Swecker gave credence to the Silk Plant Forest Citizen Review Committee’s findings and took the position that Smith deserves a new trial.
Corrine Sugino, a Wake Forest University student, suggested during the rally that Cooper’s unwillingness to get involved with Smith’s case revealed a racial double standard, considering his intervention in the Duke lacrosse case, in which he dropped charges against three white athletes falsely accused of rape by a black woman in 2007. Cooper highlights the saga on the bio page of the website for the attorney general’s office, which lists among his “initiatives”: “Taking on tough cases, including the Duke lacrosse case.”
“If he’s willing to intervene for the three white Duke lacrosse players, he must be willing to intervene for Kalvin,” Sugino said. “And if he’s not, then we will make him care because he should not be a leader in this society if he’s not willing to intervene for the people who are most disenfranchised by this society.”
Widely regarded as the frontrunner in the Democratic primary and likely challenger to Republican incumbent Pat McCrory in the November general election, Cooper has run a low-profile campaign since declaring last fall. His campaign website hasn’t been updated since October, when he officially announced his election bid, and includes no information about his platform or position on the issues. And he has stated that he will not participate in a March 1 debate with opponent Ken Spaulding hosted by the League of Women Voters at High Point University.
Jaylon Herbin, a junior majoring in political science at Winston-Salem State, made an even more explicit connection between the Smith case and Cooper’s political aspirations at the rally.
“We will get Attorney General Roy Cooper’s attention,” he said. “We need him to know that we are growing in numbers. We are concerned students. Mr. Cooper wants us to vote for him. But he is not doing his job right now to earn our vote. He has the power right now to give Kalvin his freedom. His life is in his hands.”
Noelle Talley, Cooper’s public information officer, said in an emailed statement in response to the students’ demands last week: “We understand the community’s concerns and we want to work with them on systemic issues in the criminal justice system but at this point in the legal process only a court of law can overturn Kalvin Smith’s conviction and release him from prison.”
Ron Wright, a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law in Winston-Salem, said Cooper’s hands are not bound in this case.
“It is true that at the end of the day it is a judge’s decision as to whether to grant relief,” said Wright, who is a former federal prosecutor who specializes in the rules of sentencing and post-conviction relief. “But it’s also true that the attorney general can join the defendant and ask for the relief. If the prosecutor and the defendant come together and ask a judge for a stay that’s often very powerful and persuasive.”
Stephen Boyd, a professor of religion at Wake Forest University who serves on the Silk Plant Forest Truth Committee — not to be confused with the citizens review committee — said Cooper has thus far rebuffed entreaties from the Silk Plant Forest Truth Committee to discuss the Smith case with Lt. Joseph Ferrelli and Sgt. Chuck Byrom, the two Winston-Salem police officers who staffed the city’s review of the original investigation, and has likewise declined to meet with retired Assistant FBI Director Chris Swecker about the case.
Beyond the Smith case, Cooper’s track record as attorney general has left many African-American leaders across North Carolina less than enthusiastic about his candidacy.
“Many of us are very, very concerned about the positions he’s taken with a number of issues recently,” said the Rev. Anthony Spearman, a Greensboro pastor who is the third vice chair of the state NAACP. Spearman cited Cooper’s refusal to retry Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Randall Kerrick, whose prosecution in the death of Jonathan Ferrell ended in a mistrial. Kerrick fatally shot Ferrell, a black former Florida A&M University football player, in 2013 after Ferrell staggered from a car accident and attempted to get help, prompting a confused and frightened resident to call 911 and report an attempted break-in. The jury deadlocked and a judge declared a mistrial in Kerrick’s case last year. Georgia Ferrell, the mother of the slain football player, expressed dismay about Cooper’s decision to not retry the case in an interview with WBTV News in Charlotte last August.
“Cooper did not care one way or the other about my child or about me, or about his family,” she said.
Spearman also expressed displeasure in Cooper’s decision to defend North Carolina’s voter ID law, which plaintiffs, including the US Justice Department, characterize as an unconstitutional effort to suppress the black and Latino vote.
“That’s a pretty good representation of the sentiment of the African-American community,” Spearman said.
A perception of not being responsive to the needs to African-American residents could prove to be politically touchy for Cooper in the run-up to the March 15 Democratic primary. African Americans comprise 41.4 percent of registered Democrats in North Carolina. But assuming his name recognition as attorney general for the past 12 years allows him to prevail in the primary, Cooper will face an entirely different political dynamic in his effort to peel conservative Democrats and independents away from McCrory in November.
Smith alluded to the racial politics surrounding his case in a videotaped interview screened at the rally last week.
“When you have organizations and ex-FBI directors investigate and bring forth information, and they don’t do anything, it’s frightening,” he said.
“Politics plays a big role in my case,” he added. “When politics supersedes what’s right, then we have a serious problem.”
Cooper did not respond to requests for comment for this story.