RALEIGH — The Racial Justice Act was repealed by state lawmakers almost a year ago, but questions about whether the short-lived legislation will have any life after its death go before the state’s highest court on Monday.
The N.C. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the cases of the four prison inmates who had their death sentences converted to life without possibility for parole under the act.
Though the justices will weigh arguments specific to the plights of Marcus Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine and Christina Walters – the inmates whose sentences were changed – the rulings could have an impact on cases of other death row inmates who filed racial-bias challenges before the repeal of the landmark act.
All but a few of the 153 death row inmates have cases pending in the court queues. Their challenges contend that racial bias had a role in their fate, and they plan to cull from studies showing, among other things, that African-Americans are systemically excluded from serving on death-penalty juries.
Prosecutors refute such claims, arguing that the race of a potential juror rarely plays into their decision for keeping or excluding someone from the panel. But Racial Justice Act advocates counter that a study of 173 capital trials over a 20-year period in North Carolina shows otherwise.
Though there have long been legal avenues for prisoners challenging sentences with claims of racial bias, those who continue to advocate for the overturned act highlight what they describe as shortcomings of those procedures.
Racial biases, they say, can infect the outcome of cases in nuanced ways that do not always produce the “smoking-gun” statement or evidence a judge might need.
A Michigan State University study of capital cases in North Carolina between 1990 and 2010 shows that qualified black jurors were more than twice as likely as whites to be removed from juries by prosecutors with peremptory strikes.
Judges were not allowed to consider those kinds of statistics when weighing racial bias claims until North Carolina adopted the Racial Justice Act.
The 2009 legislation, adopted in a vote along partisan lines, provided inmates and people accused in capital cases a way to use statistics to bolster their bias claims.
The law, the only of its kind in the country, was weakened by additional legislation in 2012 by the N.C. General Assembly two years after Republicans gained control of both chambers. It was overturned in 2013 after the Republicans also had control of the governor’s office.
Critics of the law had long contended it was nothing more than a back-door attempt to do away with the death penalty in North Carolina.
1 case heard under law
Robinson, 41, housed in Brown Creek Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in Polkton, about 120 miles southwest of Raleigh, was the only prisoner to have his challenge heard under the 2009 law.
Robinson was convicted of killing 17-year-old Erik Tornblom in 1991, and he was sentenced to death for the murder.
Cumberland County Judge Gregory Weeks ruled in April 2012 that race had played a role in Robinson’s case, and his ruling touched on statistics about jury selection within Cumberland County and from across the state.
In challenging the decision, prosecutors argued that Weeks’ ruling – and ultimately the Racial Justice Act – was based on a range of statistics that were too broad.
“A defendant convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death can obtain relief in post-conviction review under the RJA even if the capital defendant has never experienced any racial discrimination in his own case at any stage of the criminal process,” North Carolina prosecutors contend in their challenge. “This is an absurd result and cannot be a correct interpretation of the RJA.”
Sentences changed in additional cases
After that ruling, legislators changed the act to limit the statistics inmates could use to bolster their claims.
Weeks ruled after that amendment that Augustine, Golphin and Walters had experienced similar bias, both on a county level and statewide, and changed their sentences to life in prison without possibility for parole.
Augustine, 36, still in Central Prison after the 2012 ruling, was convicted of shooting Fayetteville police Officer Roy Turner Jr. to death in November 2001.
Walters, a Lumbee Indian housed at the N.C. Correctional Institution for Women, was convicted of killing two white women and shooting a black woman in a gang initiation murder in 1998.
Golphin, 35, in Lanesville Correctional Institute, was convicted of killing a state trooper and a sheriff’s deputy during a traffic stop in 1997.
Augustine and Golphin are both black. Augustine’s victim was black and Golphin’s were white.
A decision in the N.C. Supreme Court case could be months in coming.
But questions from the justices could offer a glimpse of the strengths and weaknesses of the cases.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1