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Judge finds Racial Bias in 3 More Death Penalty Cases Under NC Racial Justice Act
December, 13 2012
FAYETTEVILLE — Today, three death row inmates were resentenced to life imprisonment without parole, after a Cumberland County judge found that racial discrimination in jury selection played a key role in securing their death sentences.
Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters, and Quintel Augustine will spend the rest of their lives in prison with no possibility of release, under the provisions of the N.C. Racial Justice Act. The law, passed in 2009 and one of only two such statutes in the nation, allows death row inmates to present evidence that race influenced their sentencing process. Those who win their cases receive life in prison without parole.
"Our hearts go out to the victims in these cases. Five people lost their lives in senseless crimes, and we would never diminish the suffering their families have experienced," said Kenneth Rose, senior staff attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and one of several lawyers representing the defendants. "However, as a justice-seeking society, we cannot allow race to play a role in determining who receives a death sentence in North Carolina. Voiding these death sentences, in favor of life imprisonment, was the only fair thing to do."
The decision comes as North Carolina continues to struggle with the fairness of its capital punishment system. No one has been executed in six years because of concerns about the system, and this year, for the first time in 35 years, North Carolina juries did not hand down a single new death sentence.
Before arriving at today's decision, Cumberland County Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks heard four weeks of testimony and sorted through thousands of pages of documents and statistics that spanned two decades.
Weeks found that prosecutors struck qualified African American jurors at double the rate that they struck other potential jurors, both in Cumberland County and statewide. The evidence showed that potential black jurors were often dismissed for reasons such as reservations about the death penalty, criminal background, hardship or employment, while white jurors with similar characteristics were selected.
Two of the three defendants were black, and both were tried by overwhelmingly white juries. Augustine's jury was all white, and Golphin's had only one African American member.
The ruling was based not just on statistics, but on powerful evidence of pervasive discrimination in the individual cases. Racial bias was evident in prosecutors' own statements, notes, training materials and testimony.
For example, a Cumberland County prosecutor who took notes about the jury pool in Augustine's case described prospective jurors in racially charged terms. He identified one juror as living in a "black, high drug" neighborhood and circled the words "African American" on another juror's questionnaire.
The defendants also produced evidence of trainings sponsored by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys where prosecutors were trained in fabricating legally acceptable ways to exclude African Americans from juries.
"The Court takes hope that acknowledgment of the ugly truth of race discrimination revealed by Defendants' evidence is the first step in creating a system of justice that is free from the pernicious influence of race, a system that truly lives up to our ideal of equal justice under the law," Weeks wrote in his ruling.
This was the second ruling made under the Racial Justice Act. In April, Weeks resentenced Marcus Robinson to life imprisonment without parole after finding "a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina."
This summer, the state legislature amended the Racial Justice Act, requiring defendants to come forward with proof of race discrimination in the prosecutorial district at the time of the defendant's trial, rather than relying only on statewide statistics. Despite these new restrictions, the defendants were still able to prove racial bias in their cases.
"The evidence that our capital punishment system is infected by racial bias has become too great to deny," Rose said. "But, because some of our state lawmakers don't want to confront this reality, we will be fighting these cases for years to come. We will not rest until we are assured that race plays no role in North Carolina's death penalty."