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NC Supreme Court reviews racial bias in death penalty cases
4 inmates' sentences commuted, then reinstated
Published Monday, March 5, 2018 9:00 pm
by Herbert L. White

The North Carolina Supreme Court will hear cases that will decide whether racial bias is enough to move felons from death row.

Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin and Christina Walters were the first inmates to prove under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act that racial discrimination led to their death sentences, which were reduced to life without parole. Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks’ 2012 decision was overturned, and they were returned to death row. All four defendants are black.

“These Racial Justice Act cases are every bit as important to our state’s progress on civil rights issues,” said Charlotte civil rights attorney James Ferguson, who represents Augustine.

Weeks said the defendants proved prosecutors removed black people from jury service at double the rate of other potential jurors.
The defendants also argued prosecutors’ own notes, training materials, and testimony showed bias. A Cumberland County prosecutor, for example, wrote notes such as “blk wino,” “thug,” and “black, high drug” to describe prospective African American jurors in a capital case.

“The decision to hear these cases is an encouraging sign that the North Carolina high court will act on the widespread bias tainting capital cases,” said Cassandra Stubbs, one of Robinson’s attorneys and director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “The state court’s action comes on the heels of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Foster v. Chapman and Pena-Rodriquez v. Colorado — that emphasize the constitutional imperative to guard against racial bias. If North Carolina rules in the defendants’ favor, it will join a spate of recent state court decisions rejecting discrimination as part of jury selection.”

In his ruling, Weeks, an African American, found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” Under the Racial Justice Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in sentencing in capital cases, Weeks removed Robinson, Augustine, Golphin and Walters from death row in 2012 and sentenced them to life without parole. In 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned Weeks’ decision, saying the hearings should be done over because the state wasn’t given enough time to prepare and that three of the defendants, who were tried together, should have their own separate hearings. The defendants were sent back to death row.

In January 2017, Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour threw out all four cases, saying the defendants could no longer use the RJA because it was repealed by the General Assembly in 2013. The Supreme Court will decide whether to uphold or reverse Spainhour’s decision. The four defendants join death row prisoners Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, who have a related claim. In those cases, the court will decide whether death row inmates who filed RJA claims but have not yet had hearings have the right to present evidence in court.

“All we want is for the courts to look at the facts and make a fair decision,” Ferguson said. “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.”


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