I. Beverly Lake, a former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and Democrat-turned-Republican who once was a strong advocate for the death penalty, has made a striking turnaround.
In an opinion piece published Wednesday by the Huffington Post, Lake discussed how he arrived at his conclusion that the death penalty no longer could pass the test of constitutionality.
“After decades of experience with the law, I have seen too much, and what I have seen has impacted my perspective,” he stated in a piece explaining why he has joined a call with 10 former state supreme court justices from Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, New York and Tennessee questioning the fairness of a death sentence in a Louisiana muder case – involving a teen with an IQ score of 74.
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Lake said his faith in the fairness of the justice system has been shaken by the revelation that, in some cases, innocent men and women were being convicted of serious crimes. He raised concerns about capital cases pursued against people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities, and highlighted the cases of Henry McCollum and Leon Brown, two intellectually disabled teenagers who were sentenced to death and imprisoned for 30 years for a crime they did not commit.
“For intellectual disability, we can use an IQ score to approximate impairment, but no similar numeric scale exists to determine just how mentally ill someone is, or how brain trauma may have impacted their culpability,” Lake wrote. “Finally, even when evidence of diminished culpability exists, some jurors have trouble emotionally separating the characteristic of the offender from the details of the crime.”
Lake, who vigorously advocated for the death penalty when he was a state senator, also presided over superior court trials in which he said “the death penalty seemed like the only suitable punishment for the heinous crimes that had been committed.” As a state Supreme Court justice, and then as Chief Justice from 2000 to 2006, Lake said he cast his vote to “uphold that harsh and most final sentence.”
While chief justice, though, Lake began to push for reforms to help innocent people wrongfully convicted to get relief from their verdicts. Those changes led to the N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commision, a state agency unique to North Carolina that “is charged with providing an independent and balanced truth-seeking forum for credible post-conviction claims of innocence.”
Now Lake, an octogenarian, questions whether capital punishment violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines or cruel and unusual punishment.
“After spending years trying to instill confidence in the criminal justice system, I’ve come to realize that there are certain adverse economic conditions that have made the system fundamentally unfair for some defendants,” Lake stated.
“These systemic problems continue to lead to the conviction of the innocent, as well as those individuals for whom the death penalty would be constitutionally inappropriate, regardless of the crime. Our inability to determine who possesses sufficient culpability to warrant a death sentence draws into question whether the death penalty can ever be constitutional under the Eighth Amendment. I have come to believe that it probably cannot.”