Six Death Row prisoners in North Carolina to get new day in court

In 2002, Quintel Augustine went on trial accused of murdering a Fayetteville police officer — a notorious case that forced prosecutors to pick a jury in Brunswick County, 90 miles away.

Augustine was 25 but had already served two terms in prison.

The officer, Roy Gene Turner Jr., was a five-year veteran of the Fayetteville force, who left behind a fiancee and a 6-month-old child.

But another distinction has kept the case in dispute ever since: Augustine was black, and every member of the jury that handed down the death penalty, was white.

Court filings argue that Cumberland County prosecutors improperly used race as a primary factor in choosing Augstine’s jurors. In one case, a potential juror was described in handwritten notes as a “black wino,” and then rejected. Notes for a white juror, who was accepted, read “drinks — country boy — OK.”

Next week, the N.C. Supreme Court will consider whether Augustine and three others on Death Row should should have their sentences reduced to life in prison.

This reprieve had already been granted to all four of them under the state’s Racial Justice Act, which let prisoners seek relief when they could show racial prejudice in jury selection. But their death sentences were restored when the legislature repealed the law in 2013.

Two more Death Row defendants will argue that their cases were tainted by the same racial bias the courts have already found with the other four defendants, and they are requesting a hearing to present that evidence.

Their advocates argue the Supreme Court has the chance to restore a tool created to root out widespread prejudice in the legal system dating back more than a century.

Death Row debate

In 2009, when the Racial Justice Act was passed, the minority population in North Carolina had reached 34 percent, according to the nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation. But of the 142 prisoners on Death Row, nearly half were convicted by juries with little or no minority representation.

A 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Batson v. Kentucky, forbid prosecutors from rejecting jurors on the basis of race alone. But researchers at Michigan State University found in a 2012 study of North Carolina death-penalty trials that black jurors were 2.5 times more likely to be struck.

Critics of the law called it so broad that it created a loophole for any defendant given capital punishment. When he signed its repeal in 2013, Gov. Pat McCrory said, “Nearly every person on death row, regardless of race, has appealed their death sentence under the Racial Justice Act,” according to the Associated Press.

But its defenders at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation cite “a mountain” of evidence that already shows decades of bias, and overturning the law serves as a means for ignoring it.

“Whether you look at it from a legal perspective or a common-sense perspective, it doesn’t make much sense to say we’re going to create this mechanism to see if there’s racial bias, we’re going to find all this evidence and then we’re going to repeal the law,” said David Weiss, attorney with the center.

Only four people had sentences reduced under the act before its repeal: Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters, Marcus Robinson and Augustine — all of them convicted of murder in Cumberland County. The other two seeking the same chance: Andrew Ramseur and Rayford Burke, both from Iredell County.

Their attorneys come from the center, the ACLU, the NAACP, the state appellate defender’s office and private practice. N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s office will handle the case for the state. A spokeswoman for Stein’s office declined to comment on active litigation.

Black jurors rejected

In Ramseur’s case, a black 21-year-old defendant got the death sentence from an all-white jury. All of the qualified black jurors were rejected, his attorney Daniel Shatz wrote in a 2016 brief.

During his 2010 trial in Statesville, four rows of courtroom seats were cordoned off with crime-scene tape, forcing his family to sit in the back, Shatz wrote. Racially charged comments appeared on a local newspaper website, including “He should be hanging from the nearest traffic light as a warning to the rest.” The court declined to change the trial location or allow a Racial Justice Act review.

Walters, one of the few women on the state’s Death Row, was sentenced to death in 2000 for her part in a series of gang-related murders in Fayetteville. During her trial, prosecutors rejected 10 out of 14 qualified black jurors and four of 27 whites, wrote center attorney Shelagh Kenney in her brief.

One black woman was struck, Kenney wrote, because her brother had been convicted on an unrelated gun charge. The woman told prosecutors that she and her brother were not close and his criminal record would not affect her jury service. At the same time, a non-black juror was chosen despite having a brother jailed on a murder charge and writing him regular letters.

In Robinson’s case, the prosecutor asked a potential black juror if he had graduated from high school or had trouble reading — questions not asked of any others, wrote ACLU attorney Cassandra Stubbs in a 2018 brief. Half the black jurors were rejected compared to 14 percent from other groups.

Robinson was the first to be granted relief under the act.

“Never before has any legislature enacted a statute designed to remedy suspected systemic racial bias in capital sentencing,” Stubbs wrote, “only to repeal such a statute when the racial bias was found.”