The chief resident Superior Court judge in Cumberland County agreed on Thursday to let another judge preside over hearing on four Racial Justice Act cases.
Judge James Ammons Jr. told attorneys for four death row inmates that he would ask the state Administrative Office of the Courts to appoint someone else to hear the prisoners’ claims that racial bias infected their cases and opportunity for fair trials.
But Ammons, a former Cumberland County prosecutor with family ties to state law enforcement officers, did not do so without first expressing his distaste for the recusal request.
Ammons told the attorneys for Marcus Reymond Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin and Christina Walters – the four inmates trying to win relief from their death sentences – that he could be fair and impartial, that he had sworn to administer justice without showing favoritism to anyone.
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But after surveying the packed courtroom, and seeing families of victims in some of the cases and acknowledging the work the attorneys put into researching their recusal request, Ammons said he would contact state court administrators and let them select a new judge to hear the historic cases.
The four inmates successfully persuaded Cumberland Judge Greg Weeks in 2012 that racial bias had played a role in jury selection in their cases. Weeks has since retired, the state legislature repealed the law and the state Supreme Court in December 2015 vacated the 2012 rulings that converted the death sentences to life in prison without opportunity for parole.
It was unclear how quickly a new judge would be appointed. Until then, a request from prosecutors to dismiss the cases will pend.
Jay Ferguson, a Durham attorney representing Golphin, praised Ammons’ decision after the ruling.
“At the end of the day, he did the honorable thing by stepping aside to make sure there wasn’t any appearance of impropriety,” Ferguson said.