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Four Civil Liberties Heroes to Be Honored at 45th Annual Frank Porter Graham Awards Ceremony

Four Civil Liberties Heroes to Be Honored at 45th Annual Frank Porter Graham Awards Ceremony

For 45 years, the ACLU-NC has had the distinguished honor of recognizing exemplary local civil rights leaders at our annual Frank Porter Graham Awards Ceremony. This year we are honored to recognize the following four recipients at the 2014 Frank Porter Graham Awards Ceremony, which will take place Saturday, February 15, 2014, at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education in Chapel Hill.

Our keynote speaker will be acclaimed civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, whom you can read more about here.

Reservation Information: Individual reservations are $100 per person. Purchase a table for ten people for $1,000 to be a sponsor of this event. Sponsors will be recognized in the program and at the event, and a placard will be placed on your table. Deadline to RSVP is February 8, 2014. Call 919-834-3466 for details.

Purchase an ad in the event program: Advertise your business, congratulate our award recipients, or celebrate the Bill of Rights! Full page costs $100, half page $50, quarter page $35. Contact Mike Meno at 919-834-3466 or for details.

Lewis Pitts - 2014 Frank Porter Graham Award
For longstanding and significant contributions to the fight for individual freedom and civil liberties in North Carolina

Lewis Pitts has spent the last 40 years as a public interest lawyer fighting for democracy and civil and human rights. He is the founder and managing attorney of Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS), a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina.  ACS’s work focuses on pursuing education justice and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline for children from low-income families through legal advocacy, community education, and collaboration.

Pitts currently manages a six-person office and provides legal advice and representation to families in education, child welfare, and Medicaid cases. He has worked in federal and state courts to stop disparate suspensions of minority students and students with disabilities, to defend students’ due process rights, to secure pre-K services for low-income students, and to defend the First Amendment rights of students and protesters, among many other causes. His work contributed to the passage of legislation that bars the shackling of juveniles in court, as well as a state Supreme Court ruling that schools cannot deny alternative education to long-term suspended students without showing just cause.

In 1980, Pitts helped start the Christic Institute, a public interest law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., and he remained at the Christic Institute until 1991, leading their Southern work through the Christic Institute South. During that time, he participated in some high-profile civil rights cases, including winning a $350,000 wrongful death judgment against the City of Greensboro, Ku Klux Klan, and American Nazi Party following the televised murder of five labor protesters who were shot and killed by members of the KKK and American Nazi Party but subsequently acquitted by an all-white jury.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird - 2014 ACLU-NC Award
For deep commitment to preserving and defending civil liberties in North Carolina

Retiring this fall after 17 years in the North Carolina Senate, Sen. Ellie Kinnaird has been a stalwart defender and advocate of civil liberties on a range of issues.

A fierce opponent of the death penalty, Kinnaird worked to curb the execution of people with mental disabilities and defend the Racial Justice Act. An ardent supporter of LGBT rights, Kinnaird spoke passionately against Amendment One in the Senate and introduced a bill to repeal North Carolina’s anti-sodomy law.

A staunch advocate for religious liberty for all, Kinnaird was not afraid to question use of sectarian prayer in the state legislature, oppose a 2001 bill that would have allowed display of the Ten Commandments in public schools, or oppose a fear-mongering 2013 bill to ban the use of foreign or Sharia law. She is also a committed supporter of reproductive rights who in 2013 denounced last-minute proposals to severely restrict abortion access, calling them a “breach of public trust.“

Sen. Kinnaird authored landmark election reforms that are a model for other states and, in 2013, her vocal opposition to North Carolina’s voter suppression law earned national media attention, including an appearance on “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC.

Often, she was the only senator with the courage to vote her principles on tough civil liberties and criminal justice issues; for example, she was the only senator to vote against a 2010 bill authorizing the warrantless collection of DNA on arrest prior to conviction. In her final term in the Senate, Kinnaird was the only senator to score 100% on the ACLU-NC’s annual legislative report card.

Robert Hurley - 2014 Paul Green Award
For extraordinary efforts to abolish or limit the death penalty in North Carolina

Bob Hurley has worked tirelessly against the death penalty in North Carolina for nearly two decades.

In 2002, Hurley was appointed the first Capital Defender in the state by the North Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense Services (IDS Commission).  During the last eleven years, he has been responsible for the appointment and oversight of counsel in capital cases throughout the state. Under his direction, the Office of the Capital Defender has established regional offices in Wilmington, Winston-Salem and Asheville, in addition to the main office in Durham.

Working with the IDS Commission and its staff, he helped establish new requirements for counsel appointed in capital cases, including mandatory training and  case consultations.  He has also provided strong support for attorneys in the private bar, public defender offices, and nonprofit offices who represent capital defendants. In addition, he has worked hard to ensure that attorneys have the resources they need to represent their clients effectively.  With the implementation of new requirements for counsel, more resources and greater oversight of capital cases, the number of death sentences has plummeted. In the 1990’s, juries in North Carolina were returning between 20 to 30 death sentences every year.  In 2002, Hurley’s first year as Capital Defender, there were only seven death penalty verdicts.  In recent years, the number of death sentences has declined still further. In 2012, for the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in North Carolina in 1977, there were no death penalty verdicts in the state. 

Hurley has also represented capital defendants at trial and in post-conviction proceedings. In the notorious  case of  Kawame Mays, Hurley and his co-counsel represented an African-American defendant who was charged with killing two white people in Wake County, one of whom was a police officer.  Despite the fact that few people in the legal community thought they had a chance to save Mays’ life, after two very contentious trials, Hurley and his co-counsel were able to obtain two life sentences for their client.  Hurley still represents two death row inmates in post-conviction proceedings.   

Connie Vetter - 2014 Sharon Thompson Award
For extraordinary efforts toward advancing equal rights for LGBT persons in North Carolina

Attorney Connie J. Vetter opened her law office in Charlotte in 1994 and has focused her practice primarily on the needs of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender individuals and couples. She has been described as Charlotte’s leading LGBT rights lawyer. 

Vetter tirelessly lobbied the Charlotte City Council for nondiscrimination policies and domestic partner benefits.  She has organized three CLE programs on LGBT issues for the Mecklenburg County Bar Association.  She has a passion for educating people about the law and speaks frequently on LGBT legal issues to organizations, college classes and professional forums. She has arranged and spoken at numerous seminars to explain LGBT legal issues, including second parent adoption and the case against Amendment One.

Vetter has served on the boards of the Lesbian & Gay Community Center, NC GALA Institute for Equal Rights, North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Attorneys, Mecklenburg Gay & Lesbian Political Action Committee, Equality NC, Time Out Youth and OutCharlotte. She was appointed to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee by Charlotte City Council in 2004. In 2006, she was the Parade Marshall for North Carolina Gay Pride.