Racial Justice Act back on the docket in Cumberland County

Much has changed in North Carolina in the four years that have passed since Marcus Reymond Robinson became the state’s first death row inmate to see his sentence converted to life without parole under the short-lived Racial Justice Act.

Republicans have gained control of both General Assembly chambers and the governor’s office and have a 4-3 majority on the state Supreme Court.

On Thursday, six months after the state’s highest court vacated the only four Racial Justice Act rulings that occurred before legislators repealed the law, attorneys arguing that racial bias infected Robinson’s capital case will try to make the same points with a different judge.

But before the proceedings for Robinson begin again, attorneys representing the inmate are arguing that the judge assigned to the case – and that of the other three inmates, Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine and Christina Walters – should recuse himself.

The initial claims were heard by Judge Gregory Weeks, who retired from the Cumberland County bench in late 2012. In December 2015, the Supreme Court vacated the rulings by Weeks, saying he erred when he did not give prosecutors more time to respond to a statistical study about race in the North Carolina courts.

Now the case is assigned to Cumberland County’s senior resident Superior Court Judge James Floyd Ammons Jr., an assistant district attorney in Cumberland during the 1980s when the death row inmates claimed prosecutors struck qualified black jurors from serving on juries at a higher rate than jurors of other races.

They cite one trial in 1988, when Ammons reportedly struck black jurors from the jury panel at 3.3 times the rate at which he excluded all other qualified jurors.

Ammons, the defendants contend in a motion for recusal likely to be discussed Thursday, could be a potential witness.

“No judge, including Judge Ammons, could be expected to fairly evaluate, or be perceived to be a fair arbiter of, whether his own conduct was racially biased,” the motion for recusal states.

During the proceedings in 2012, defense attorneys called prosecutors or former prosecutors from Cumberland County to testify about the culture in the district attorney’s office.

A Michigan State University study played a central role in the arguments that racial bias infected the cases. The study of capital cases in North Carolina between 1990 and 2010 showed that qualified black jurors were more than twice as likely as whites to be removed from juries by prosecutors with peremptory strikes.

When Weeks ruled in April 2012 that race had played a role in Robinson’s case – the first heard and decided under the Racial Justice Act – 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.

Prosecutors have disputed that race played a role in their decisions to strike potential jurors from panels. They have asked for the cases to be dismissed instead of moving ahead with the new proceedings in Cumberland County

The Racial Justice Act, adopted in 2009 as groundbreaking legislation approved largely along party lines, was repealed by lawmakers in 2013, in part because of concerted effort from prosecutors. Despite its demise, questions linger about whether the law will have life after its death.

In addition to the four inmates who won relief under the act, all but a few of the 152 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.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1