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 The Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013, but claims made prior to repeal are still pending.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.

Supreme Court to hear Racial Justice Act Cases Monday

Press release, Center for Death Penalty Litigation, April 11, 2014
Contact: Kristin Collins, Center for Death Penalty Litigation

919-791-7976, [email protected]

 

On Monday at 9:30 a.m., the N.C. Supreme Court will hear the cases of four defendants — Marcus Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine and Christina Walters — who were removed from death row in 2012 under the N.C. Racial Justice Act. Later this year, the justices will decide whether to uphold the N.C. Superior Court’s decision to resentence the four inmates to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole because of pervasive racial bias in their trials. The state appealed the decision, despite being unable to rebut the compelling evidence presented by the defendants in their 2012 hearing.

The case so far

Robinson, Golphin, Augustine and Walters were the first of North Carolina’s approximately 150 death row inmates to have their cases heard under the Racial Justice Act, a groundbreaking law intended to root out racial discrimination in capital cases. All four defendants proved that racial bias infected their trials and that African-Americans are systematically denied the right to serve on capital juries.

During their 2012 hearings, the defendants presented evidence that prosecutors in Cumberland County, where they were tried, took racially charged notes during the jury selection process (noting, for example, that one juror was a “black wino”). Cumberland prosecutors also participated in a training seminar, sponsored by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, where prosecutors from across North Carolina were taught ways to get around the law barring them from striking jurors based on race. After listening to weeks of testimony and sorting through documents and statistics that spanned decades, Superior Court Judge Gregory 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 enacted in 2009, on the heels of the exonerations of three black men on North Carolina’s death row. The law allowed inmates who prove that racial bias contributed to their death sentences to be resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Most of North Carolina’s death row inmates filed claims under the law, after a study from Michigan State University found that qualified black jurors in North Carolina were more than twice as likely as whites to be removed from juries by prosecutors, with the use of peremptory strikes. The Michigan State researchers reviewed 173 capital trials in North Carolina between 1990 and 2010.

Despite the compelling evidence of racial bias presented by Robinson, Golphin, Augustine and Walters — the only four defendants to have their cases heard under the law — state legislators repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013. However, the claims made under the law are still pending, and the courts will decide whether those cases go forward. Next week’s hearings are expected to address only the four defendants whose cases have been appealed.

See also Race and Recent Legislation.