The N.C. Supreme Court is hearing arguments Monday and Tuesday in a case that could determine the fates of death row inmates who say race played a role in their sentencing.
Tilmon Golphin, Marcus Robinson, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine had all been convicted of murder in Cumberland County and sentenced to death. However, in 2012, a judge commuted their sentences to life in prison without parole under the Racial Justice Act, a 2009 state law from the Democrat-controlled legislature that allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences if they could show their sentences were influenced by racial bias.
The act was repealed in 2013 under a Republican majority, and in 2015 the state Supreme Court ruled that the four needed new trials to get off death row. In 2017, a judge dismissed all four cases on the grounds that, since the Racial Justice Act was no longer in effect, there were no grounds for the proceedings to continue. The challenge to that ruling has now reached the state Supreme Court.
James Coleman, John S. Bradway professor of the practice of law, said the inmates should have their sentences reduced once again to life in prison, as their sentences should not have ever been increased after being reduced.
“What the repeal [of the Racial Justice Act] attempts to do is to remove the process by which a person could show that he was eligible for commutation,” Coleman said. “And I think that would be an ex post facto law, which means it would be a retroactive increase in the punishment given that the legislature had commuted the death sentence for anybody whose case was tainted by race.”
Coleman, a co-director of Duke Law School’s Wrongful Convictions Clinic, also said that those who had already filed a claim should have continued proceedings to determine whether their sentences should be commuted. Two such inmates, who filed motions before the Racial Justice Act was repealed, will argue for their own hearings in front of the N.C. Supreme Court alongside the previously-named four plaintiffs.
The 2015 state Supreme Court court decision was based on an unusual technicality, Coleman added. In the hearing that determined that the four sentences should be commuted, the state repeatedly asked for more time to bring in experts. The judge eventually refused their request and issued an opinion finding that the four’s original trials had been affected by racial bias, commuting their sentences to life in prison.
The state Supreme Court found that this was an “abuse of discretion,” Coleman said, adding that the court made this decision knowing that the state might use the repeal of the Racial Justice Act to try to send the four inmates back to death row, depending on if the repeal was retroactive.
He added that the judge who presided over the hearing, Gregory Weeks, the former Cumberland County senior resident superior court judge, ruled there was “actual discrimination in all four cases, so [his] decision didn’t have to rely on the statewide statistics [that the experts were going to provide].”
North Carolina hasn’t carried out an execution since 2006, according to a N.C. Department of Public Safety database. However, having their sentences commuted nevertheless was a benefit for the four inmates; Time Magazine reported that Golphin was given a lower classification and moved to a prison where he had more privileges.
The Racial Justice Act was aimed to combat the influence of race in the justice system. In the cases of the four men whose sentences were commuted, for example, prosecutors struck black jurors from the jury and wrote racially charged descriptions of black men.
Coleman said that the act was a good measure to prevent this kind of discrimination.
“If the result of what [prosecutors] did in the past is that many of the people who are under death sentences end up with their sentences commuted to life,” he said, “that will be an incentive for them to stop doing the things that they had done.”
Coleman said that the current case will test whether the state Supreme Court is willing to address the problem of discrimination in the justice system.
“The law is clear that the legislature intended to commute death sentences under the circumstances that it set out in the [Racial Justice Act],” he said. “And if the [N.C.] Supreme Court ignores that fact and finds some way to get around the clear law, then I think it would be an indication that the court is indifferent to race discrimination in North Carolina.”
Correction: This article has been updated with the correct former Cumberland County senior resident superior court judge, Gregory Weeks. An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the judge as "Greg Wise." It has also been updated to clarify Coleman's remarks on what the N.C. Supreme Court knew in its 2015 ruling—the Court did not make its decision knowing it would return the inmates back to death row. The Chronicle regrets the error.
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Matthew Griffin was editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 116th volume.