Judge overturns 3 death sentences under Racial Justice Act

Gov. Bev Perdue signs the Racial Justice Act

Gov. Bev Perdue signs the Racial Justice Act

A North Carolina judge voided the death sentences of three convicted murderers yesterday, two of whom were African-American, citing that race played a significant role in their trial and sentencing.

Death row inmates Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine had their cases reviewed under the Racial Justice Act of 2009, a policy that allows death row cases to be reconsidered if relevant evidence suggests racism was a factor in the original trial. The act specifies that if race was found to be a factor in the trial, inmates’ sentences would be reduced to life in prison without parole.

Lawyers for the three convicted felons, whose cases are all unrelated, found statistical evidence along with anecdotal and documentary evidence such as handwritten notes and race-based jury selection processes, that proved that racist methods were used in deciding their fate.

One of the inmates, Golphin, had one of the most controversial cases in this re-decision. In 1997, Goldphin, who was 18 at the time, was convicted of killing highway patrol trooper Ed Lowry and sheriff deputy David Hathcock during a traffic stop. Goldphin’s lawyers used statistical jury selection patterns to prove that prosecutors prevented blacks from serving on their trial juries, according to Fayetteville Observer.

“Although they have committed heinous crimes, they were sentenced to death in a process that was focused more on obtaining death sentences than it was in ensuring the process was fair,” Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks told WRAL.

Michigan State University studied death penalty cases in North Carolina and found evidence suggesting peremptory challenges were used to remove African-American jurors almost double the rate of that of whites. It is unconstitutional to remove jurors solely based on race.

“The evidence that our capital punishment system is infected by racial bias has become too great to deny,” Kenneth Rose, one of the lawyers representing the three defendants, said in a statement. “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.”

Still, the law has been met with some controversy within the last couple of years.

In 2011, the Republican state legislature tried to repeal the act; however, Democratic governor Bev Perdue, vetoed the repeal.

Just recently, the act was successfully modified by Republicans, which now states that statistical evidence by itself is inefficient in proving a racially-based decision. Death row defendants must provide evidence suggesting race was a factor within lower courts such as the proprietorial and county courts.

“The court finds no joy in these conclusions,” Judge Weeks added. “Indeed, the court cannot overstate the gravity and somber nature of its findings, nor can the court overstate the harm to African-American citizens and to the integrity of the justice system that results from racially discriminatory jury selection practices.”

Follow Brittany Tom  on Twitter @brittanyrtom