State Politics

NC Supreme Court vacates Racial Justice Act decisions

The state Supreme Court vacated rulings in four historic Racial Justice Act cases, saying the judge erred when he did not give prosecutors more time to respond to a statistical study about race in the North Carolina courts.

The decision overturns Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks’ finding that racial bias played a role in the cases of Marcus Reymond Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Christina S. “Queen” Walters and Quintel Augustine.

Under the short-lived Racial Justice Act, Weeks’ finding meant that the four death row inmates saw their sentences commuted to life in prison without a possibility for parole.

Now the four will have to make their cases again.

“The Supreme Court ruling does not address Judge Weeks’ findings of pervasive racial discrimination in jury selection in North Carolina and in Cumberland County at the time of the trials of these defendants,” said Ken Rose, senior staff attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “It permits the state more time and more resources to conduct yet another study. We are confident that the ultimate result of these cases will remain the same.”

The Racial Justice Act, adopted in 2009 as groundbreaking legislation approved largely along party lines, was repealed by lawmakers in 2013. 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.

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 the panel. But Racial Justice Act advocates counter that a study of 173 capital trials over a 20-year period in North Carolina shows otherwise.

A Michigan State University study of capital cases in North Carolina between 1990 and 2010 shows 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.

The state Supreme Court ruling encourages both sides to present additional statistical studies.

“We are confident that, no matter how many hearings are held or studies completed, we will win this case,” said Jay Ferguson, one of the attorneys for the inmates. “The evidence of racial bias in jury selection is simply overwhelming and undeniable. All this decision will do is add more delays and cost the state millions to conduct new studies and hold new hearings. We will be throwing more taxpayer money into a hopelessly broken death penalty.”

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 nearly a decade.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1