This article first appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer.
The two men suspected of killing UNC-Chapel Hill student body President Eve Carson represent a case study in the failure of North Carolina’s criminal justice system.
Both suspects had criminal records that pointed to an escalation in the type and severity of crimes they might be involved with in the future. Although human error contributed to the circumstances, Demario James Atwater, for one, could have been kept off the streets if criminal justice computer systems simply "talked" to each other. Despite the suspects’ numerous encounters with law enforcement, critical weaknesses in the system meant that authorities failed to keep them locked away from the public.
How did the suspects graduate from property crime to the murder they are charged with?
Both were well-known to the criminal justice system. Between them, Atwater and Laurence Alvin Lovette Jr. (who after his arrest in the Carson case was also charged in the murder of Duke graduate student Abhijit Mahato) also account for at least two criminal uses of firearms, multiple burglaries, stolen cars and larcenies. All were carried out in a four-county area of the Triangle before the murder of Eve Carson. These were not just arrests; they involved multiple convictions.
Atwater was not given the correct probationary supervision in the correct county. And despite being in court two days before Eve Carson’s murder for felony possession of a firearm, he was allowed to go free.
Anytime a firearm is present in a criminal setting, alarms should go off, and be heard, throughout the system to prevent criminals from being turned loose. The highest and most important duty of a government is to ensure the safety of its citizens. Public safety should take priority over all other functions of the state. But in North Carolina, the courts and criminal justice system are often an afterthought when it comes to funding. A bipartisan list of Supreme Court justices has complained about underfunding of the courts.
The chain of events leading to Atwater’s continued presence on the streets is a direct result of proper resources not being applied to a pressing need — i.e., computer systems in different parts of the criminal justice system that can share information. The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. It is a situation state leaders have long known to exist but have not corrected.
When Atwater was arrested for possession of a firearm by a felon, the arresting officer should have been able to see whether he was already on probation or parole. That officer should have been able immediately to inform Atwater’s probation officer that Atwater had been caught with a gun, so the probation officer could start the process of sending him to prison for violating probation. In states such as Nevada, any law enforcement officer is able to do just that.
Here, however, probation officers will probably not learn that one of their offenders has been arrested — particularly in another county — until after bond has been posted and the arrestee is back on the streets. Instead of investing in new technology, we rely on 2,000 probation/parole officers to check up on 118,000 supervised offenders (some of these officers supervise upward of 90 criminals at a time) in the courts’ computer system.
Failing that, incredibly, we depend on criminals to call their probation officers to let them know they’ve been arrested again and have violated the terms of their probation. An investment in modern technology will bring our justice system into the 21st century and make North Carolinians safer.
Along with the public safety system as a whole, the judicial system has long been the neglected third branch of government. The legislature needs to view investment in the safety of its citizens like any other capital expenditure. Since 2006 the state has authorized more than $2.1 billion in capital spending. Somewhere in this $2 billion-plus legislators should have found the funding to modernize our criminal justice system.
They did not. While we spend money on new state buildings, our criminal justice system limps along like an artifact of a bygone century. It’s a question of priorities.
Imagine the United States fighting a war in which the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines could not "talk" to one another. As a nation we found that unacceptable and fixed the problem. As a state North Carolina allows a comparable situation to persist in its crime-fighting efforts. The failure might have contributed to the deaths of two innocent people. That is unacceptable!
(Francis X. De Luca is executive director of the John William Pope Civitas Institute. He is a former legislative liaison for the state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety.)