Kristie Puckett-Williams, Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice Manager, holds the microphone for a speaker at the Vigil for Freedom and Racial Justice outside of the Governor's Mansion in Raleigh. Photo by Delmas Cooper Photography.

Ronnie Long was convicted by an all-white jury for a crime he did not commit. He lost forty-four years of his life by being wrongfully imprisoned. 

After years of hard work by the Duke Innocence Project, Mr. Long was released earlier this year, but he still needs a pardon of innocence from Governor Roy Cooper to be able to move on with his life. And he is not alone. 

There are more people, such as April Barber, who remain incarcerated for crimes they committed as teenagers under complex circumstances. There are other North Carolinians who are serving sentences that are far longer than they would be if they were convicted of the same crime today.

As many of us figure out how to safely spend time with our families during holidays amid a pandemic, we cannot forget about those who remain separated from their loved ones and are at risk of contracting COVID-19. Eighteen people who were in the state’s custody have already lost their lives from this virus. Nearly 5,000 people in the prison system have contracted COVID-19. Moreover, our state is experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Since prisons are not closed environments, we know that viral spread within them is inevitable, likely introduced by those who work in the prisons. Our lawsuits this past year have shown us how high the risks are. Communal living spaces and people’s inability to take measures to protect themselves put the tens of thousands of incarcerated North Carolinians at an unnecessarily high risk of infection.

In response, Decarcerate Now NC coalition members established a vigil outside of the Governor’s mansion on November 4, 2020. The vigil will continue for the duration of Governor Cooper’s first term, which ends on January 1, 2021. Demonstrators are calling upon him to take action to reduce sentences and grant pardons to those wrongly and unjustly convicted. 

This year has been challenging to say the least. Over 250,000 people have died in the United States as a result of the coronavirus, many of which could have been avoided if there were competent federal leadership on the issue. We’ve experienced police violence inflicted upon peaceful protesters calling for racial justice. There has been a concerning normalization of white supremacy, and the pillars of democratic institutions are being constantly challenged.

Too often, there is little that we have control over other than our own actions. That’s why demonstrations calling for racial justice are so inspiring. When unsure about what can be done to address an overwhelmingly large issue, we search for the things that we can do.

Governor Cooper cannot single-handedly dismantle systemic racism or remove racial disparities from our criminal legal system. But he can use his executive authority to grant pardons to people like Ronnie Long who were wrongfully convicted. Governor Cooper can recognize the harm of life sentences given to juveniles and grant clemency to people like April Barber. Our governor needs to recognize the harm done by the racially disparate practice of policing and incarceration that he witnessed in varying roles as an elected official - as a state representative, state senator, attorney general, and now as Governor of North Carolina. By using his clemency powers to give thousands of people another chance, he can begin to rectify some of the injustices Black North Carolinians have experienced. 

As we give thanks and show gratitude this season, we hope you will remember all of the North Carolinians who are unable to be safe and at home with their families. If you want to let them know that they are not forgotten, join us in calling on Governor Cooper to unite families and release people during this pandemic.