Four people in North Carolina removed from death row could soon face the death penalty again. The North Carolina Supreme Court will hear two cases Monday over the fate of four prisoners whose sentences were thrown out under North Carolina’s now-repealed Racial Justice Act.
The Racial Justice Act allowed dozens of inmates to challenge their death sentences by pointing to racial bias in the prosecution, jury selection, and sentencing during the time of their trial. The original law was unique in allowing challenges based on statistical discrimination. It did not free any convicts; it only allowed judges to commute death sentences to life without parole. However, Republicans narrowed the Racial Justice Act’s application of statistical evidence before repealing the act entirely in 2013. At issue now is which version of the law should apply to the cases of Marcus Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters, and Quintel Augustin.
“It’s very difficult to find evidence of discrimination that’s proven in all areas of the law,” Cassandra Stubbs, Director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “That’s why we allow statistical discrimination in other areas of the law,” she said, pointing to areas like housing and employment claims.
In 2012, Marcus Robinson became the first prisoner to have his sentence commuted under the Racial Justice Act. “Race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise preemptory challenges during jury selection,” Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks said in his decision to commute Marcus Robinson’s sentence of death-row to life without parole. He decided the same in Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine’s case. “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.
Each of these cases showed evidence of racial discrimination, lawyers argue, particularly in the jury selection. Prosecutors referenced black jurors as “blck. wino-drugs,” or “thugs,” and as coming from a “respectable black family” or a “bad neighborhood.” In some instances, black and white jurors expressed the same mixed feelings about the death penalty, but the black juror was the one dismissed.
“In general the issue with discrimination cases it’s that its very very rare to get a smoking gun,” Stubbs said. “We came as close as you can to having a smoking gun in this set of cases.”
Statistical evidence of racial discrimination, however, is much easier to show. A widely cited Michigan State University investigation found that at the time the defendants were tried, prosecutors removed African-Americans from the jury pool at twice the rate they removed jury members of other races. Defendants were also three times as likely to receive a death sentence if the victim was white, while blacks and Latinos also tend to receive harsher sentences than whites.
North Carolina could hold its first executions since 2006 if the court reverses Weeks. The decision could also hint at how the court will determine other cases under the Racial Justice Act. There are roughly 150 inmates on death row right now in North Carolina. Of those, 80 are black, even though African-Americans make up only one-fifth of North Carolina’s population.