The deaths of three North Carolina icons and a “superstorm” that left a lasting impression are among the state's top stories of 2012.
Along the way, a criminal trial revealed some sordid details about the personal life of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, though he avoided prison when a jury acquitted him on a campaign finance charge and deadlocked on five other felony counts.
Among the notable deaths in 2012 were three of the state's best-known figures: actor Andy Griffith, folk musician Doc Watson and University of North Carolina system President William Friday.
“They really helped define, at least in the minds of other North Carolinians, what North Carolina is or should be,” said Kevin Cherry, the state's deputy secretary for archives and history.
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Watson's Appalachian-inspired music, the hometown values evoked by TV's “The Andy Griffith Show” and the education and service that Friday promoted “are all aspects of the North Carolina story,” Cherry said. “They helped tell the North Carolina story. They helped define who we area. They truly were giants.”
Superstorm Sandy didn't come ashore in North Carolina, and it wasn't even a hurricane when it did pass by in late October. But the storm chewed up N.C. Highway 12 on Hatteras Island, shutting down the Outer Banks highway for almost two months and leaving taxpayers with a tab of $8 million to $10 million for a temporary fix.
The Coast Guard rescued the crew of the HMS Bounty off the North Carolina coast, though one crew member died and the body of the captain was never found.
As for Edwards, the former Democratic U.S. senator who twice ran for president, he looked forward to moving on after an embarrassing criminal trial in Greensboro.
Federal prosecutors had accused Edwards of masterminding a scheme to use about $1 million in secret payments from two wealthy political donors to hide his pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, as he sought the White House in 2008. After a six-week trial ended, with a judge declaring a mistrial, federal prosecutors decided in June not to retry Edwards on campaign fraud charges.
Edwards, who had fathered a child with Hunter, denied doing anything illegal after the mistrial but acknowledged he had done much that was wrong. He said he believed he could still do good, but political observers said that this would have to happen outside the political realm.
“The most interesting thing to me about Edwards is how deep a hole you can dig for yourself,” said Lew Powell, a former newspaper columnist who contributes to N.C. Miscellany, a blog about the Tar Heel State maintained by the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Look at all the politicians in the world who have mortally wounded themselves and so many have found a way to recover. … But Edwards doesn't seem to have any foothold for reinventing himself. I may be completely wrong, but it seems like he doesn't have anywhere to go.”
Some news stories about social justice continued in 2012: an effort to compensate victims of forced sterilization $50,000 each failed, and lawmakers scaled back the Racial Justice Act after a judge commuted one death-row sentence to life in prison. The judge then commuted three more death-row sentences under both the old and new versions of the law. And the Wilmington 10 awaited word on a pardon they want to fully clear their names in the firebombing of a grocery store in 1972, though a federal court had already overturned their convictions.
But social justice involves more than issues that are clearly race-related, said the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. The group held tours of three geographic areas of North Carolina last year to draw attention to poverty in the state.
Broader issues include economic matters such as living wages, tax reforms and labor rights; educational quality, including staying true to the state constitutional requirement of a sound, basic education for all students; and health care for all.
“What we have seen in North Carolina over the last year is a very regressive posture when you take in those areas,” Barber said. “ … When you go backward on civil rights, you don't hurt just African-Americans.”
Other major non-political stories in North Carolina in 2012:
• In the arts, “Hunger Games” came to the big screen, bringing visitors hungry to learn about a post-apocalyptic-world to North Carolina's mountains to see where Katniss, Peeta and Gale fought for their lives. And “Iron Man 3,” starring Robert Downey Jr., brought its $200 million budget to the Wilmington area.
• In December, Duke Energy formalized deals that ended separate investigations by North Carolina regulators and the attorney general into whether the utility misled officials before a merger that made it the country's largest electric company. Duke Energy shocked investors and consumers just hours after the merger closed July 2 by firing Progress Energy CEO Bill Johnson, who for a year and a half had been promised the job heading the combined company. The surprise CEO switch prompted shareholder lawsuits, led to consumers accusing the state regulator of being duped, and drove down Duke Energy's stock price
• UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp announced his resignation effective in June after dealing with a series of athletic, academic and financial scandals over the past two years. The NCAA imposed a one-year ban from postseason play, 15 forfeited scholarships and other penalties on the football team. But the probe also found academic fraud. Matt Kupec, the school's vice chancellor for advancement, and his girlfriend and fellow UNC employee Tami Hansbrough resigned fundraising jobs after questions about spending on trips they took, including some to watch Hansbrough's younger son Ben play basketball for Notre Dame in 2011.
• And Paula Broadwell of Charlotte became a household name after her affair with retired Gen. David Petraeus led him to resign as CIA director.