By CAMPBELL ROBERTSON
Published: December 13, 2012
A judge in North Carolina on Thursday ruled that race had played a significant role in the sentencing of three convicted murderers to death, and changed their sentences to life in prison without possibility of parole. It was the second such decision under the state’s Racial Justice Act and the first since the act was amended by the state legislature.
Lawyers representing Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine had argued under both the new and old versions of the act, contending that statistics as well as anecdotal and documentary evidence, like handwritten notes by prosecutors, showed that race influenced the sentencing process and particularly the picking of juries.
“In the writing of prosecutors long buried in case files and brought to light for the first time in this hearing, the court finds powerful evidence of race consciousness and race-based decision making,” wrote Judge Gregory Weeks of Cumberland County Superior Court, who also ruled last April in the first case to be heard under the Racial Justice Act.
According to a report on local TV station WRAL, the brother of a state trooper killed by Mr. Golphin had to be removed from the courtroom, shouting, “Judge, you had your mind made up before this ever started!”
The Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates to seek to have their sentences changed to life without parole if they can show that race was “a significant factor” in sentencing.
In the original version of the law, passed in 2009, defendants were allowed to make their arguments using statistical evidence alone, and to demonstrate the influence of race in the state at large at the time of sentencing, rather than in their specific counties.
After the act was passed, researchers from Michigan State University studied the application of the death penalty in North Carolina and found that peremptory challenges had been used to remove blacks from juries at a rate more than twice that of whites, a rate that was even higher in Cumberland County. Removing potential jurors solely on the basis of race has been ruled unconstitutional.
In 2011, a newly Republican state legislature passed a repeal of the act, but the governor at the time, Bev Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed it.
This year, Republicans passed a law that did not repeal the act, but modified it. Governor Perdue vetoed this as well, but Republicans were able to attract a handful of Democratic legislators and overrode her veto.
Under the new law, statistical evidence by itself is insufficient in proving the influence of race, and a defendant must prove that race was a factor in death sentencing in “the county or prosecutorial district” when he or she was tried, rather than regionally or statewide. The law also eliminated consideration of the race of the victim in defendants’ arguments.
Mr. Golphin and Mr. Augustine are black, and Ms. Walters is a Lumbee Indian. They were convicted of unrelated murders and have been on death row at least 10 years. Their victims included whites and blacks; in Mr. Golphin’s and Mr. Augustine’s cases, the victims were law enforcement officers.
Nearly all of North Carolina’s 155 death row inmates had filed motions under the old act, and lawyers on their behalf have argued that the amended law does not apply to them. In his decision on Thursday, Judge Weeks agreed that the law did not apply retroactively, but ruled that lawyers for the three defendants in this case had met the burden of proof under both versions anyway.
The defense produced handwritten notes taken by prosecutors during jury selection that noted which potential jurors were black, sometimes associating them with drug and alcohol use for no apparent reason.
The defense also highlighted another trial in the county, in which the defendants were white supremacists and the victims were black. Prosecutors in that case struck black jurors at a rate far lower than they did in cases where the defendants were black — evidence, the judge found, of racial intent in jury selection.