A just ruling

A judge makes a tough but fair call under the Racial Justice Act.

December 16, 2012 

The anguish of families and colleagues of the victims in three murder cases, reacting to a judge’s ruling that the convicted killers deserved life in prison without parole instead of the death penalties they received, was deep and understandable. The families undoubtedly feel that justice has been denied.

But despite the sympathy all feel for the victims and those they left behind, justice is not about getting revenge. It is about trial and conviction (or acquittal) and punishment arrived at fairly. And that was not the case with the death penalties given to Christina Walters, Tilmon Golphin and Quintel Augustine, said Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks at a Thursday hearing. Rather, he said, their trials and sentences contained clear evidence of racial discrimination.

The state’s Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates to challenge their sentences and have them changed to life in prison if they prove racial discrimination played a part in the proceedings that put them on death row. Weeks, who earlier this year commuted another inmate’s sentence because of the act, found through statistical evidence (for example, incidences of prosecutors striking potential jurors because of race) that justice was skewed in these cases.

These inmates will not walk free, though that’s the image, at least, that opponents of the Racial Justice Act like to conjure.

The act of 2009 was changed by Republicans after they took control of the General Assembly, and narrowed. Now, inmates must clear a higher bar to prove prejudice.

The crimes of which these three were convicted were horrible indeed. Walters, a Lumbee indian, was convicted of killing two white women and shooting a black woman in a gang initiation murder in 1998. Augustine and Golphin, both black men, were convicted in slayings of law officers. Augustine went to death row for the murder of a Fayetteville police officer (who was black) in 2001 and Golphin was convicted of killing a state trooper and a sheriff’s deputy, both white, during a traffic stop in 1997.

Weeks cites in a ruling of over 200 pages examples of how prosecutors used twisted reasoning to strike prospective jurors who might have been sympathetic to minority-race defendants. One example: In Augustine’s case, he wrote that “despite strong evidence” that a juror “was targeted for exclusion from Augustine’s jury because of her residence in a black neighborhood,” the prosecutor “never told the trial judge he was striking her for that reason.”

When race influences jury selection, does that make for fair trials? It does not. And could there be a worst-case scenario than such maneuvers going on with the death penalty in the mix? No. Critics say the Racial Justice Act is a back-door route to abolition of the death penalty. (No juries have delivered death sentences in the state this year, by the way.) That would be positive, frankly, because only a perfect judicial system doesn’t make mistakes. As recent rulings show, North Carolina’s system is far from that.

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