A Cumberland County judge commuted the sentences of three death row inmates to life in prison without possibility for parole at an emotionally charged hearing on Thursday after finding that racial discrimination played a role in their trials and sentences.
Judge Gregory Weeks issued his rulings for Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine after they challenged their sentences under the 2009 Racial Justice Act.
Walters, a Lumbee Indian, was convicted of killing two white women and shooting a black woman as part of a 1998 gang-initiation murder.
Augustine, who is black, was convicted of killing Roy Turner Jr., a black Fayetteville police officer, in November 2001.
Golphin, a black man, was convicted of killing two white law enforcement officers Ed Lowry, a state trooper, and David Hathcock, a Cumberland County sheriffs deputy, at a 1997 traffic stop.
Attorneys for the defendants argued during a nine-day hearing in October that prosecutors had systematically tried to prevent blacks from serving on the juries for the trials. The defense team presented statistics and handwritten notes from prosecutors case files to bolster its contentions.
Prosecutors argued racial bias did not play a role in the cases. They challenged statistical evidence that shows prosecutors at the time of the trials systematically struck potential black jurors from sitting on juries in capital cases in Cumberland County and across North Carolina.
Prosecutors plan to appeal the ruling, as they did in the case of Marcus Reymond Robinson, the first death row inmate to successfully challenge and have his sentence converted to life without parole under the Racial Justice Act.
The state Supreme Court is scheduled to announce this month whether it will hear the Robinson case.
Ruling draws protests
Weeks ruling Thursday triggered emotional outbursts from victims family members in the Cumberland County courtroom.
Lowrys brother was escorted from the courtroom after he stood during the proceedings and yelled at Weeks.
In a prepared statement released after the ruling, Michael Gilchrist, commander of the State Highway Patrol, said he was disappointed the death sentence for Golphin had been changed to life in prison without parole.
I am certainly disappointed that the sentence for a convicted murderer of two law enforcement officers has been set aside and that the jurys sentence will not be carried out, Gilchrist said. Law enforcement officers dont make the laws, we support them and enforce them, its not our place to be critical of them. It is important that we support the law enforcement officers who protect us and support their families as well and thats what we are doing.
Advocates of the Racial Justice Act lauded Weeks for taking a courageous stand at a time when statistical research and other evidence show more and more that racial bias plays a role in a justice system that is supposed to be blind to race.
Our hearts go out to the victims in these cases. Five people lost their lives in senseless crimes, and we would never diminish the suffering their families have experienced, said Ken Rose, senior staff attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and one of several lawyers representing the defendants. However, as a justice-seeking society, we cannot allow race to play a role in determining who receives a death sentence in North Carolina. Voiding these death sentences, in favor of life imprisonment, was the only fair thing to do.
The judges ruling comes almost eight months after his historic ruling in the Robinson case.
Justice Act changes
Under the 2009 Racial Justice Act, Weeks was able to weigh statistics while considering Robinsons claim that race played a role in his trial and sentence.
After Weeks issued his strongly worded order, saying statewide and local statistical evidence had shown that the jury selection process in capital cases had systematically excluded blacks, the Republican-led 2012 legislature overhauled the law, saying the 2009 wording allowed too sweeping a use of statistics.
The new law limits the use of statistics to the county where the trial was held and places a higher burden on inmates to show case-specific discrimination.
Perdue veto overriden
Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the overhauled act, but the legislature overrode her veto.
The legislature said, however, the changes to the law did not apply to Robinsons case since it was ruled on before the changes.
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.
Weeks addressed both versions of the law in his ruling Thursday, saying he found discrimination under both versions of the law.
The Court takes hope that acknowledgment of the ugly truth of race discrimination revealed by Defendants evidence is the first step in creating a system of justice that is free from the pernicious influence of race, a system that truly lives up to our ideal of equal justice under the law, Weeks ruled.
Cassandra Stubbs, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, said Thursdays ruling affirms that racial bias has no place in capital cases.
Whether we look at the big picture of the statistical evidence or the close-up evidence from the prosecutors notes, there was overwhelming proof of discrimination, Stubbs said. The court sent the unmistakable message that prosecutors must change their jury selection practices if they want to seek the death penalty.
Death sentences decline
Prosecutors and Republican state legislators have called the Racial Justice Act a backdoor attempt to repeal the death penalty.
As North Carolina politicians engaged in rigorous debate this year about whether capital punishment should exist, the juries that decide death-penalty cases made a statement of their own. No jury in North Carolina has come back with a death sentence this year, and there are no more capital cases on the 2012 docket.
There has been a de-facto moratorium on executions in North Carolina since 2006, when a series of lawsuits were filed challenging the fairness and humanity of the state-sponsored executions.
Most challenge sentences
All but a few of the 152 death row inmates have challenged their sentences under the Racial Justice Act.
They all filed in the summer of 2010.
The three inmates whose death sentences were abandoned on Thursday filed their challenges before the legislative overhaul of the Racial Justice Act.
Their cases, defense attorneys said, took more time to litigate in court than Robinsons, whose was heard under the earlier version of the law.
The evidence that our capital punishment system is infected by racial bias has become too great to deny, Rose said. But, because some of our state lawmakers dont want to confront this reality, we will be fighting these cases for years to come. We will not rest until we are assured that race plays no role in North Carolinas death penalty.