Racial bias in death penalty cases to be weighed by NC Supreme Court

Jay Ferguson argues a motion to Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks during the first day of the Racial Justice Act hearing of Marcus Robinson at the Cumberland County Courthouse.
Jay Ferguson argues a motion to Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks during the first day of the Racial Justice Act hearing of Marcus Robinson at the Cumberland County Courthouse. N&O file photo

Three North Carolina death row inmates who briefly saw their sentences changed to life in prison after a judge found racial bias played a role in their case will get a hearing at the state Supreme Court.

On Friday, the state’s highest court agreed to hear the cases of Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine and Christina Walters, three inmates who used the NC Racial Justice Act to have their sentences converted from death to life in prison with no chance for parole before a different judge sent them back to death row.

The decision comes more than a year after a Cumberland County judge ruled against the three inmates and one other who are still trying to use the short-lived Racial Justice Act to have their sentences commuted.

The Racial Justice Act, adopted in 2009 as groundbreaking legislation while Democrats controlled the legislature and governor’s office, was repealed in 2013 while Republicans had control of both branches.

Although most of the inmates on death row in the North Carolina prison system filed cases under the Racial Justice Act, alleging racial bias played a role in their cases, Robinson, Augustine, Walters and Timothy Golphin were the first four to have their claims heard.

Golphin’s case was not in the orders issued on Friday by the state Supreme Court.

They persuaded Cumberland County Judge Gregory Weeks through the use of statewide and local statistics that racial bias played a role in their cases. Weeks has since retired from the bench, but he ruled in the cases being watched by many legal scholars that 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 through moves known as peremptory strikes.

Prosecutors argued that the Racial Justice Act in general, and more specifically Weeks’ rulings, were 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 Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour in January 2017 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 law 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.

Executions on hold in NC

Spainhour’s decision was appealed and now both sides will get to make their arguments to the state’s Supreme Court justices.

Two other death row prisoners, Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, whose Racial Justice Act cases did not go before a judge before lawmakers repealed the law, also are on the docket with their related claims. The court will decide whether they can still present their claims of racial bias.

James Ferguson, a longtime civil rights attorney with the Charlotte-based law firm Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter, the state’s first racially-integrated law firm, helped with the Racial Justice Act cases. The issues raised by the death row inmates, he said, are similar to others he has fought over the decades — such as segregation in schools, housing and employment discrimination and the wrongful convictions of the the civil rights advocates known as the Wilmington 10.

“These Racial Justice Act cases are every bit as important to our state’s progress on civil rights issues,” Ferguson said, adding that he hoped the justices would reopen the path for the inmates to provide their data to judges.

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.

“All we want is for the courts to look at the facts and make a fair decision,” Ferguson said. “When you really look at the evidence, it’s clear that race is influencing how we use the death penalty in North Carolina. This is a chance for the state’s highest court to declare, definitively, that racial bias in the death penalty is an urgent civil rights issue that cannot be swept under the rug.”

Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project and one of the attorneys representing Robinson, said the state Supreme Court’s willingness to hear the cases was encouraging. “The state court’s action comes on the heels of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Foster v. Chapman and Pena-Rodriquez v. Colorado — that emphasize the constitutional imperative to guard against racial bias,” Stubbs said. “If North Carolina rules in the defendants’ favor, it will join a spate of recent state court decisions rejecting discrimination as part of jury selection.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1