North Carolina’s Supreme Court justices heard two oral arguments several weeks ago about two separate Racial Justice Act cases. Lawyers representing four death-row inmates whose sentences were converted to life without a possibility for parole argued that statistics from a Michigan State University Study show that racial bias infected the capital cases. Marcus Robinson was the first murderer to have his sentence commuted and Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters had their cases heard and commuted in 2012. The state Supreme Court will decide if the death row inmates’ new sentence of life without parole should be upheld. These two arguments will most likely be decided on by the end of the summer.
The Racial Justice Act allowed judges to consider statistics more than proof of racism when weighing inmate claims that race-based decisions played a role in the cases brought against them. In 2012, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks said that racial bias had played a role in the sentencing of all four convicted killers who were sentenced to death. Using a Michigan State University College of Law study of North Carolina capital cases in all four cases, Weeks found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” Special Deputy Attorney General Danielle Elder argued that attorneys representing Robinson had not presented “specific” evidence of racism that occurred in his trial. She also argued that the attorneys had not shown “intentional” racism and reiterated several times this is why Judge Weeks’ decisions should not be upheld. But Donald H. Beskin, the attorney representing Robinson, pointed out that the Racial Justice Act did not require such proof. The act was designed to prevent “race-based decision-making, whether it is conscious or unconscious.” One would think that an individual case should be looked, at not just statistics.
The oral arguments come almost two years after a Cumberland County judge issued the first ruling associated with the short-lived Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that was overturned last year. The murders were committed between 1998 and 2002 and the victims’ families are still waiting for closure.
More than 150 death row inmates sought relief with the 2009 version of the law. Since their cases were in the court queues before the 2012 amendment or 2013 repeal, the argument has debated whether or not the inmates should be able to have their claims heard. The 2009 law and other lawsuits have created a de facto moratorium on executions in the state. There has not been an execution since 2006. The decision the Supreme Court will make will most likely be one that will affect the other 150-plus court cases in limbo.
An interesting observation was that Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley recused herself from the second oral argument because of a conflict of interest. Beasley served as a defense attorney for Golphin. While Beasley may have made the obvious decision on this case, her intentions are being questioned about other cases the Supreme Court will be hearing.
The Racial Justice Act was passed by the legislature and then repealed several years later because the unintended consequences create absurd results. Hopefully soon victims’ families will have closure in their cases.