North Carolina

North Carolina

North Carolina Supreme Court to Hear Racial Justice Act Cases

On April 14, the North Carolina Supreme Court will hear appeals in the cases of the four inmates whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act. North Carolina passed the Act in 2009, allowing death row inmates to use statistical studies to show that racial bias affected their trials. The first four cases were heard in 2012. The evidence presented at hearings for defendants Marcus Robinson (l.), Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters included testimony that prosecutors made racially charged notes during jury selection and participated in a training seminar where they were taught how to get around laws that banned striking jurors on the basis of race. Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks reduced the sentences of all four inmates to life. In one ruling, Weeks said he found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” The Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013, but claims made prior to repeal are still pending. The state brought the current appeal before the state Supreme Court in an attempt to have the death sentences of all four inmates reinstated.

Perspectives on Representing Death Row Inmates

Ken Rose has represented people condemned to death in the south for 30 years and recently described his experience with this "flawed system:" "The system reflects our biases and blind spots," he said. "Just like us, it is susceptible to error and prejudice and, sometimes, an indiscriminate desire for revenge. Like our country, it favors the privileged and takes the heaviest toll on the poor and mentally ill." As an example, Rose told the story of one of his clients, Leo Edwards, whose gas-chamber execution he witnessed in Mississippi in 1989. Edwards, who was black, was prosecuted by a district attorney who said he tried to "get rid of as many" black jurors as possible, and testified that he used that tactic in Edwards' trial, resulting in an all-white jury. The timing of Edwards' case prevented him from receiving a new trial: "This clear racial bias was never addressed because Leo’s case was too far along by 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards for reviewing claims of race discrimination in jury selection," he said. Rose noted that some improvements have been made, but "Racial bias still taints trials. Defendants are still chosen for death arbitrarily. Those sentenced to die are still overwhelmingly poor and mentally ill. Judges and lawyers, including myself, still make mistakes. Innocent people are still imprisoned."  Read the op-ed below.

NEW VOICES: Retired Judges Support Finding of Racial Bias in North Carolina Death Penalty

Six retired judges in North Carolina urged the the state Supreme Court to uphold the rulings of a lower court that found racial bias in the use of the death peanlty. Former chief justices James Exum and Henry Frye, along with former judges Willis Whichard, Melzer Morgan, Wade Barber and Russell Walker filed a brief in support of inmates whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole in 2012 under the state's Racial Justice Act. The Act allowed death row inmates to present statistical evidence of racial bias in challenging their sentences, but it was repealed in 2013. The NAACP also filed a brief on behalf of the inmates. Irving Joyner, a North Carolina Central University law professor who signed the NAACP brief, said, "What the court has to decide is whether the state of North Carolina feels it's acceptable to execute people who have been tried by a racially biased system."

NEW VOICES: Staunch North Carolina Conservative Would Replace Death Penalty

Steve Monks is a "staunch conservative" and former Chair of the Durham County, North Carolina, Republican Party. In an op-ed in the News & Observer, he recently argued that the state would save money and make society safer by replacing the death penalty with life without parole. He noted that the homicide rate in the state dropped 3.8% from 2011 to 2012, a time when no one was executed and no one even sentenced to death. In addition, there has been a 25% decline in the homicide rate from 2005, when executions occurred more regularly, to 5.1 per 100,000 last year, with no executions in 7 years. Monks concluded, “I am all in favor of taking a tough approach to crime. I believe people who commit murder should die in prison. I also believe we should use crime-fighting tools that are efficient and have proven results. The death penalty does not meet either of those standards… [I]n tough economic times, law enforcement budgets are on the chopping block while our state continues to spend millions every year on the death penalty, the very epitome of a wasteful government program.” Read full op-ed below.

INNOCENCE: Faulty Practices Raise Doubts About Accuracy of Crime Labs

A recent article in the ABA Journal drew attention to problems in crime labs across the country that have resulted in  wrongful convictions, including some in death penalty cases. Investigations in many states and of the national FBI lab revealed a lack of written procedures, improper mixing of samples from different cases, improper testimony, and even falsification of test results. An Oklahoma City chemist who testified in 23 death penalty cases was later fired for giving false or misleading testimony. Twelve of the defendants in whose cases she had testified were executed. In North Carolina, an independent audit by two retired FBI agents showed that analysts at the state lab had regularly withheld or distorted evidence in more than 230 cases over a 16-year period, including three cases that resulted in executions. Some experts are pushing for better regulation of forensic labs. The National Academy of Sciences presented 13 recommendations in a 2009 report, including calling for the creation of an independent national institute of forensic science, and enforcement of accreditation and certification standards. Very few of the Academy's recommendations have been implemented. Paul Giannelli, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, who has studied crime labs for 20 years, said forensic labs should be held to the same standards as clinical labs that conduct medical tests. "They're both a matter of life and liberty," he said.

RACE: Former Military Officials and Other Groups Ask North Carolina for Fairness in Jury Selection

A number of prominent groups have filed supportive briefs with the North Carolina Supreme Court asking that the practice of racial bias in selecting jurors for death penalty cases be ended. Former senior military officials, families of murder victims, and potential jurors denied the opportunity to serve because of their race were among those arguing that a ruling under the state's Racial Justice Act be upheld. In 2012, Judge Gregory Weeks held that Marcus Robinson's (pictured) trial was tainted with racial discrimination and that there was evidence of similar bias around the state. Statistical studies showed that qualified African Americans were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of whites. Potential black jurors were removed for such reasons as membership in the NAACP or attending an historically black university. Robinson’s death sentence was reduced to life, but the Racial Justice Act was recently repealed after the ruling. The state supreme court will review Judge Weeks' findings of bias. No briefs were filed by groups opposing the ruling in Robinson's case.

NEW VOICES: Former County GOP Chair Says Death Penalty Violates Conservative Values

Steve Monks, a former Durham County, North Carolina, GOP Chair, recently called for an end to the death penalty in the state. Earlier in June, legislators voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, which had allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias. Monks wrote in an op-ed in Plain Talk Politics that the most recent attempts to reform capital punishment in the state are strong indications that “the system will never work properly.” Monk encouraged conservative Republicans to reexamine the death penalty in light of the system’s additional costs compared to life without parole, the risks of wrongful executions, and its failure to bring closure to murder victims’ families. Monk concluded, “The time has come for conservatives here in North Carolina to ask ourselves if the death penalty really fits with our values. We all want a smaller, more efficient government that does not abuse its power, along with swift and sure justice… Let’s put an end to North Carolina’s seemingly endless death penalty debate by simply bringing our politics in line with our conservative principles – wasteful government programs that don’t work and go against our values should be ended.”  Read full op-ed below.

RECENT LEGISLATION: North Carolina Legislators Vote to Repeal Racial Justice Act

On June 5, legislators in North Carolina voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, which had allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences using statistical evidence of racial bias. Since the law took effect in 2009, most of the inmates facing execution in North Carolina appealed their sentence under the law. In 2012, Marcus Robinson, who was the first defendant to receive a hearing under the RJA, was re-sentenced to life without parole due to evidence of racial bias in jury selection. Rep. Darren Jackson expressed his disappointment at the repeal: “[W]e voted for the RJA because we wanted the death penalty to be applied uniformly, without regard to race. Be it the perpetrator, the victim, or an individual juror, race should play no part in the process.”  Governor Pat McCrory has said he will sign the repeal bill.

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