Death Row cases go to NC Supreme Court over racial bias

Racial bias corrupted the jury selection in the murder trials of six Death Row inmates, evidence of longstanding discrimination in how the state decides capital punishment, attorneys argued before the N.C. Supreme Court Monday.

Three of the defendants from Cumberland County — Quintel Augustine, Marcus Robinson and Christina Walters — had their sentences reduced to life in prison under the 2009 Racial Justice Act, but they returned to Death Row when the legislature repealed the law in 2013. A fourth defendant, Tilmon Golphin, has his day in court Tuesday.

Two more — Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur — argue their cases were tainted by the same bias the courts have already found with the other four defendants. They are requesting a hearing to present that evidence.

“The simple strategy in jury selection with these cases was the prosecution did all they could to be sure African-Americans would not participate,” James Ferguson, an attorney for Augustine, told the justices Monday. “What we have in this case is clear evidence of discrimination.”

Minority representation

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.

Over nearly five hours Monday, attorneys listed tactics district attorneys have used to keep black people from serving on juries, including “Top Gun” training sessions that provided a cheat sheet for getting around the U.S. Supreme Court decision that bars dismissing jurors solely based on race.

In Augustine’s case, court files said, the prosecutor’s notes described one potential black juror as a “blk wino” and a white one as a “country boy — OK.” The prosecutor in Burke’s Iredell County case called him a “big black bull” during closing arguments, attorneys said.

The state Attorney General’s Office seeks to dismiss their claims. Its attorneys argued that the question for justices to decide is not whether racial discrimination should be discussed, but rather whether repealing a single piece of legislation will hurt a defendant’s ability to pursue justice.

“It will not,” said Senior Deputy Attorney General Danielle Elder.

When it repealed the Racial Justice Act, she said, the legislature specified that all death penalty defendants still have a right to pursue discrimination cases under the state and federal constitutions. The courts are busy handling such cases nationwide. In June, she noted, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a new trial to Mississippi death penalty convict Curtis Flowers because blacks had been systematically excluded.

“She has mechanisms by which she can raise these same claims,” said Elder, referring to Walters, one of three women on North Carolina’s Death Row.

Attorneys for the defendants, though, said those legal avenues are often closed to their clients, barred by procedural rules.

Arguments continue Tuesday.

Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.