North Carolina Supreme Court Agrees to Hear Racial Justice Act Death-Penalty Cases

The North Carolina Supreme Court announced on March 2 that it will hear appeals from three of the four prisoners whose death sentences were reduced to life without parole under the state's Racial Justice Act, then reinstated after the legislature repealed the law. Passed in 2009 and repealed in 2013, the landmark legislation allowed death-row prisoners to challenge their sentences on the basis of statistical evidence of racial discrimination. Marcus Robinson (pictured), Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin all received reduced sentences in rulings by Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks. The defendants presented evidence of jury strikes or acceptances of more than 7,400 jurors from 173 capital cases tried over a twenty-year period. The study showed that for the entire period covered, prosecutors across the state consistently struck African-American jurors at approximately double the rate of other jurors, and disproportionately removed African-American jurors irrespective of their employment status, whether or not they expressed reservations on the death penalty, or whether they or a close relative had been accused of a crime. Weeks determined that the study was “valid [and] highly reliable” and showed “with remarkable consistency across time and jurisdictions” that prosecutors had systemically excluded African-Americans from juries in death-penalty cases. In 2015, the state Supreme Court vacated Weeks’ rulings and remanded the case to the Superior Court to permit more evidence to be presented. At that point, prosecutors argued that the prisoners could no longer rely on the Racial Justice Act because it had been repealed, and a new judge, Erwin Spainhour, agreed. The North Carolina Supreme Court will decide whether Spainhour's ruling stands in the cases of Robinson, Augustine, and Walters. It did not yet announce whether it will hear Golphin’s case. Two additional death-row prisoners, Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, will present related issues to the court. Their Racial Justice Act claims were filed, but not heard by a judge, before the law was repealed. James Ferguson, one of the attorneys who worked on the Racial Justice Act cases, said, “All we want is for the courts to look at the facts and make a fair decision. When you really look at the evidence, it’s clear that race is influencing how we use the death penalty in North Carolina. This is a chance for the state’s highest court to declare, definitively, that racial bias in the death penalty is an urgent civil rights issue that cannot be swept under the rug.”

(Paul Woolverton, N.C. Supreme Court to hear Racial Justice Act death row cases, Fayetteville Observer, March 2, 2018; Chinelo Nkechi Ikem, NORTH CAROLINA SUPREME COURT TO RECONSIDER DEATH SENTENCES FOR THREE INMATES OF COLOR, Pacific Standard, March 2, 2018; Anne Blythe, Death row inmates will go before NC’s highest court. ‘Urgent civil rights issue,’ lawyer says., The News & Observer, March 2, 2018.) See Race.