The independent news organization of Duke University

In this debate, where is Duke?

Speaking at a May 16 news conference in Raleigh, Professor John Hope Franklin, Duke’s famed historian, urged the state legislature to support a two-year moratorium on executions during which time a newly formed state-sponsored commission would study North Carolina’s system of capital punishment. In addition to the notable North Carolinians who joined Dr. Franklin in Raleigh, Herb Sendek, N.C. State’s current basketball coach, and Dean Smith, UNC’s legendary basketball coach, expressed their unwavering support for the bill in letters to the governor and state legislature.

“A system that allows innocent people to be convicted and sentenced to death; that results in many of the poorest of our citizens being prosecuted by the death penalty; where the race of the victim often plays a role in who gets the death penalty and who does not (and that has such a high rate of error) cannot be a fair and just system. I urge our legislature and Governor Easley to pass House Bill 529.”

— Dean Smith

I never thought I would see the day when leading figures from all three of North Carolina’s major universities—UNC, N.C. State and Duke—would join together to rally behind a highly charged bill before the state legislature.

Two months ago, in a guest column on these pages, I urged the Duke community to get involved in North Carolina politics and support House Bill 529. The state legislature has the opportunity to become the first bicameral legislative body in the country and the first southern state to approve such a bill. And yet members of the N.C. House—perhaps out of fear of political retribution in the 2006 elections—have so far failed to uphold the state’s reputation as a progressive force in the struggle for racial and economic equality in the South.

In spite of garnering an 8-6 victory in the House Judiciary Committee, the bill has yet to be heard on the house floor. Democratic majority leaders pulled the bill from consideration by the full House when it became apparent the bill likely would not pass and be sent to the Senate. The vast majority of the bill’s supporters are Democrats (who hold a 63-57 majority in the House), but there are more Democrats opposed to the bill than Republicans in favor of it.

The N.C. Senate passed a similar version of the bill on April 30, 2003, but the house did not follow suit. The House has—at least up to this point—failed to support the bill once again. The moratorium survived the crossover deadline (the time at which all non-monetary bills must be approved by at least one of the legislative bodies in order to remain up for debate) due to the nominal funding pledged for the commission’s study. But the bill’s backers are scrambling for the additional 3 to 4 votes necessary to send it to the Senate.

It is quite unfortunate that the bill has become a partisan issue since the moratorium campaign is NOT about the abolition of the death penalty but rather about the efficacy of the system and pursuit of justice for all North Carolinians, including victims, minorities and the indigent. But having spent the last three weeks working with the North Carolina Coalition for a Moratorium, the most disheartening aspect of the overly politicized battle has been Duke University’s lack of influence in the matter—and I am not strictly referring to the fact that the legislature is dominated by UNC graduates.

Perhaps Duke, often derided as the University of New Jersey by the rest of the state, deserves the moniker. I am extremely proud to attend such a prestigious university and have enjoyed reading recent articles in Time and The New York Times about groundbreaking stem cell research at the Duke medical center and star Duke lacrosse players from Long Island. But we should not allow our national prominence to blind us to the fact that we are a historically southern university that has played an important role in state and regional politics. Although prominent Duke professors such as John Hope Franklin, James Coleman and Ariel Dorfman have been staunch proponents of the moratorium bill, I find it rather telling that there has not been a concerted effort by Duke students or the administration to assume a more active role in the campaign.

From the Bassett Affair to the 1969 takeover of the Allen Building, Duke University’s adminstrators, faculty and students must build upon the precedent set by previous generations of Blue Devils. North Carolina includes more than the Durham beyond the East Campus wall, and it is incumbent upon the University community to reestablish itself as a progressive force in the state dedicated to issues affecting all North Carolinians. The moratorium campaign is an excellent place to start.

Speaking at his inauguration as Duke's new president, Terry Sanford, the former governor and future senator from North Carolina told the crowd: “I do not propose that we seek for ourselves a homogenized pattern of the half-dozen great private universities of the nation of which we are one.... We strive to be Duke University, an institution seeking the highest scholarly attainment and using to the fullest its own peculiar resources and creative capabilities.”

Terry Sanford, while establishing Duke as a preeminent national institution of higher learning, never forgot Duke’s responsibility to the state. Mr. Sanford was a progressive leader who dedicated his life to Duke and the state of North Carolina. As a man devoted to education and racial progress, he would clearly have pushed for a more active role by all Dukies in the campaign for a moratorium.

This may be your last opportunity before the end of the 2006 legislative session to convince the N.C. House to make the right decision and reevaluate a flawed system responsible for putting innocent people on our state’s death row. In addition to getting involved with local chapters of national advocacy organizations, such as Amnesty Internation, you can write, call and visit legislators in order to sway the undecided and encourage the bill’s sponsors to keep pushing forward in spite of the obstinate opposition.

Adam Yoffie is a Trinity senior and a Service Opportunities in Leadership intern at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham. For more information on the moratorium, go to www.ncmoratorium.org.

Discussion

Share and discuss “In this debate, where is Duke?” on social media.