Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly Lake Jr., a law-and-order conservative who helped make North Carolina a national leader in the effort to overturn wrongful convictions, died Thursday after a period of declining health. He was 85.
Lake served on the state’s highest court for more than 12 years and led it from 2001 to 2006. He also served in the state Senate and ran for governor as a Republican in 1980.
“(He) loved justice, loved his state and his country,” Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby said Thursday. “He had the true heart of a public servant seeking to do what is right, just and fair for all the people.”
Lake’s most lasting legacy may be North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission.
The commission was an outgrowth of an effort Lake began in 2002, around the time that DNA evidence had become a new tool in criminal prosecutions. In 2006 that effort led to creation of the Innocence Inquiry Commission, a state agency that has since won the exonerations of 15 people convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
One was Greg Taylor.
Now a Raleigh software developer, Taylor served 17 years in state prison after being convicted of murder in 1993. Using DNA evidence, and showing procedural faults in the SBI investigation, the commission in 2010 made him the first person to win exoneration.
“I owe my freedom to Justice Lake,” Taylor, now 57, said Thursday.
Lake had been known as a hard-line trial judge who would wear a pistol in court. It was his respect for the law that in 2002 led him to create the Actual Innocence Commission, which studied the issue of wrongful convictions, said Chris Mumma, executive director of the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence and Lake’s one-time law clerk.
“He wanted the justice system to work and he wanted the public to love its justice system and respect it,” Mumma said. “North Carolina was seen as the leader in the country on criminal justice reform for many years because of Justice Lake. He recognized that if there is a wrongful conviction, there is a guilty person on the streets committing more crimes.”
When Lake began organizing the first commission in 2002, he brought together more than two dozen people in the criminal justice system. He explained his idea of preventing wrongful convictions. He would later tell a reporter from The Marshall Project that the reaction was decidedly mixed. Conservative friends, he said, saw it as an attempt to “go back on my values and start over fighting for the bad guys, the criminals.”
“I got letters from longtime friends saying, ‘You’ve lost your mind, Bev,’” Lake said in 2015. “Some of them haven’t spoken to me ever since.”
Former Justice Bob Orr said Lake made North Carolina the national model for reviewing convictions.
“It really is a phenomenal accomplishment and legacy, which would not have been able to happen if Chief Justice Lake had not gotten behind it and pushed for it,” Orr said.
Lake pushed for other criminal justice reforms including practices for accepting eyewitness testimony.
“Those efforts have prevented people from being wrongfully convicted in the first place,” Mumma said.
In 2016, Lake wrote an oped in the News & Observer explaining why he had become an opponent of the death penalty.
“After spending years trying to instill confidence in the criminal justice system,” he wrote, “I’ve come to realize there are certain adverse economic conditions that have made the system fundamentally unfair for some . . . .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.”
Lake was an Eagle Scout and Army veteran. Friends remember him as a man with courtly Southern manners and an impish sense of humor. Or, as Mumma put it, “a unique combination of a gentleman, a scholar and a jokester.” A graduate of Wake Forest University law school, he was an ardent fan of the Demon Deacons.
Once Orr heard loud thumps in the hallway outside his office at the Supreme Court. When he looked up, there was Lake with a Wake Forest jersey over his business attire bouncing a basketball. Wake had just beaten UNC-Chapel Hill.
“I can’t emphasize enough what a delightful person he was to work with and be around,” Orr said Thursday.
Greg Taylor said his daughter was 9 when he went to prison. Now she’s a mother with three sons.
“I get to spend time with my family thanks to Justice Lake,” he said