Four death row inmates have challenged the changes made this summer to the state’s Racial Justice Act.
In court documents filed in Cumberland County, Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin, Jeffery Meyer and Christina Walters are seeking to have their cases heard using the 2009 law, a request that could launch a legal review of a legislative overhaul of the law this summer.
Earlier this summer, the Republican-led legislature overhauled a Racial Justice Act that was adopted in 2009 along party lines.
The law allows death row inmates to use statistics when challenging their sentences on claims of racial bias. If racial bias played a role in their case, a judge can convert a death sentence to life in prison without opportunity for parole.
Though federal laws allow inmates and others to challenge their sentences on bias claims, North Carolina and Kentucky are the only two states in the country to have laws allowing the use of statistics.
In April, a Cumberland County judge converted the death sentence for Marcus Robinson, the first of more than 150 death row inmates seeking relief under the Racial Justice Act.
Judge Gregory Weeks found evidence that the jury selection process in capital cases, both statewide and locally, had systematically excluded blacks, and in a strongly worded order converted Robinson’s sentence to life without possibility for parole.
Then this summer, the legislature made sweeping changes to the Racial Justice Act, hoping to limit the use of statistics to the judicial district in which the inmate’s case was tried.
The governor vetoed the overhauled act, but the legislature earlier this week overrode her veto.
Lawyers are scheduled to be in court in Cumberland County on Friday to argue some of the issues in the cases of the four inmates seeking to have their cases heard under the same law as Robinson.
The legislature, in its overhaul of the Racial Justice Act, said the changes to the law did not apply to Robinson’s case. But death penalty critics and advocates of using statistics in bias claims have argued that it would be unfair for all the death row inmates who filed bias claims under the 2009 law to not have a chance to argue their cases under that law.
Advocates of changes to the Racial Justice Act have argued that the 2009 wording allowed too sweeping a use of statistics.
They also argued that it was a back door attempt to do away with the death penalty, essentially blocking executions and keeping capital cases tied up in court for years longer than the traditional appeals process.
Advocates of the Racial Justice Act countered those contentions with arguments of their own about how the overhauled bill and the attempt to cut other death row inmates out of the legal loop would add a new layer of litigation.
Prosecutors on Friday will argue that Weeks, the judge who found bias in the Robinson case, should not preside over the cases of the four inmates seeking to have their cases heard in Cumberland.
They made a similar attempt for the Robinson case but did not prevail.
Defense attorneys are seeking to bring back the same legal team for the Robinson case to shepherd the Augustine, Golphin, Meyer and Walters cases through the judicial process.