A Cumberland County judge ruled this week against four death row inmates still trying to use the shortlived Racial Justice Act to have their sentences commuted to a lifetime in prison.
Judge Erwin Spainhour did not take new evidence about whether racial bias played a role in the cases of Marcus Reymond Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Christina S. “Queen” Walters and Quintel Augustine.
Instead, Spainhour decided the cases of the four death row inmates could no longer proceed because the Racial Justice Act, adopted in 2009 as groundbreaking legislation, was repealed in 2013.
The cases of Robinson, Golphin, Walters and Augustine have been widely watched in legal circles.
They were the first four inmates on North Carolina’s death row to successfully persuade a Cumberland County judge through the use of statewide and local statistics that racial bias played a role in their cases. Gregory Weeks, a Cumberland County judge who has since retired from the bench, issued the historic rulings in their cases.
In their arguments before Weeks, the inmates presented a study that found African-Americans had been systemically excluded from serving on death-penalty juries.
Prosecutors have disagreed with such claims, arguing that the race of a potential juror rarely plays into their decisions for keeping or excluding someone from a panel. But Racial Justice Act advocates have countered that a Michigan State University study of 173 capital trials over a 20-year period in North Carolina shows otherwise.
The study found that in North Carolina, between 1990 and 2010, qualified black jurors were more than twice as likely as whites to be removed from juries by prosecutors with peremptory strikes.
Weeks highlighted that in his April 2012 in Robinson’s case – the first heard and decided under the Racial Justice Act. Most of the 150 death row inmates filed claims under the Racial Justice Act when the law was still on the books.
State prosecutors argued that Weeks’ rulings in the first four cases heard – and ultimately the Racial Justice Act – was based on a range of statistics that were too broad.
The state Supreme Court vacated Weeks’ ruling in December 2015 and sent the case back to Superior Court to give prosecutors more time to respond to the statistical analyses presented by the inmates.
But prosecutors argued to Spainhour, the judge who picked up the case after Weeks, that the four inmates could no longer use the Racial Justice Act since it was no longer a law on the books.
Attorneys for the inmates argued against that, pointing out that when the inmates filed their claims the Racial Justice Act was law and not allowing their claims to continue under statute in place then was unconstitutional.
Spainhour sided with prosecutors, saying in his ruling this week that Weeks’ 2012 decision should not be considered a final judgment because all appeals in the case had not been exhausted.
Ken Rose, an attorney who represented Golphin, said Wednesday he plans to appeal the Spainhour decision to the state Supreme Court. Golphin and another inmate have cases pending in federal court, too, challenging the state Supreme Court ruling that sent them back to death row after Weeks granted them sentencing relief.
Golphin was convicted of killing a deputy and state trooper in a traffic stop. Robinson was convicted of killing a teen in a robbery. Walters was sentenced to death row for leading a gang that kidnapped and killed two women. Augustine was convicted of murdering a Fayetteville police officer.
The Racial Justice Act lawsuits and a series of others challenging the fairness of the death penalty have created a de facto moratorium on executions in North Carolina for more than a decade.