Retired justices and judges offer support for Racial Justice Act cases

ablythe@newsobserver.comJanuary 15, 2014 

— The four North Carolina prison inmates whose death sentences were commuted to life in prison without possibility for parole under the short-lived Racial Justice Act received support this week from former judicial heavyweights.

As the inmates wait for their cases to be scheduled for arguments in the N.C. Supreme Court, two retired chief justices of the state's highest court, one retired associate justice and three retired Superior Court judges filed a brief urging the state justices to consider “the critical importance” of the North Carolina law that was the only one of its kind in the country.

The Racial Justice Act was adopted in 2009 in a historic vote along partisan lines. For the four years before its repeal in 2013, the law provided an avenue for inmates and people accused in capital cases to use statistics to bolster claims of racial bias in their cases.

Marcus Reymond Robinson became the first to have his sentence reduced in April 2012, when Cumberland County Senior Resident Judge Gregory Weeks found that Robinson had “introduced a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.”

Not long after the Robinson decision, Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine went before Weeks seeking relief from their death sentences with similar claims of bias.

But shortly before their hearings were to begin in the summer of 2012, the legislature amended the Racial Justice Act to require that more than statistical evidence was needed to prove a racial bias claim.

In December 2012, Weeks again ruled that bias had played a significant role in the cases and commuted the sentences for Augustine, Golphin and Walters to life without possibility for parole.

Review contested

Prosecutors sought a review of the rulings by the N.C. Supreme Court, and though the justices have agreed to hear arguments in the cases, they have not yet set a date.

In seeking review, prosecutors contended that Weeks' rulings were “replete with errors and based upon a misapprehension of well established law of this state.”

On Monday, in response to the briefs put forward by special deputy attorney generals appealing the lower court ruling, defense attorneys included the brief from the retired judges and justices.

The group includes: James G. Exum Jr. and Henry E. Frye, retired chief justices of the N.C. Supreme Court, Willis P. Whichard, a retired associate N.C. Supreme Court justice, and retired Superior Court Judges Melzer A. Morgan Jr., Wade Barber Jr., and Russell G. Walker Jr.

“Together they have over 115 years of experience deciding cases at the trial and appellate level,” the brief states.

By virtue of their experience presiding over many capital trials, attorney Robert Mosteller of Chapel Hill contends, the retired judges and justices are in “a unique position to comment on the damaging effect of racial influence on the criminal justice system and the limited ability of constitutional remedies, standing alone, to curb this taint.”

The state NAACP also is seeking to offer evidence in the cases.

The special deputy attorneys seeking a repeal of the Weeks’ rulings argue that the Cumberland County judge’s orders in the Robinson case and in the three subsequent cases “misinterpreted” the act in its 2009 form and the 2012 amended form “such that a capital defendant who has never personally experienced any racial discrimination in his or her case at any stage of the criminal justice process is entitled to relief under the RJA statutes. This interpretation is at odds with well established law and is an abuse of discretion.”

The cases are being monitored by legal scholars across the country at a time when death penalty verdicts are in sharp decline across the country and questions of fairness, racial bias claims and wrongful convictions have played a role in the drop.

Death penalty declining

Over the past decade, North Carolina has averaged fewer than thee death sentences a year, a sharp contrast with the 1990s, when more than two dozen people often were sent to death row in a single year.

In 2013, one person was sentenced to death in North Carolina. His was one of 80 death sentences returned in the United States that year.

North Carolina has 151 inmates on death row. There have not been any executions in this state since 2006, when a series of lawsuits challenging the fairness and humanity of capital punishment in this state created a de facto moratorium.

Most of the death row inmates have challenged their sentences under the 2009 Racial Justice Act.

It’s unclear what, if any, larger impact the four cases before the state Supreme Court will have on the pending challenges.

“Courts typically will decide only the issues that are before them based on the claims of the individual cases,” said Jay Ferguson, a Durham lawyer involved with the Golphin, Augustine and Walters case.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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