A Cumberland County judge has sentenced three death row inmates to life in prison without possibility for parole after finding that racial discrimination in jury selection played a key role in securing their death sentences.
Judge Gregory Weeks issued the ruling on Thursday for Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine after the challenged their sentences under the 2009 Racial Justice Act.
Walters was convicted of killing two women in a gang initiation ritual. Golphin was convicted of murdering two law enforcement officers at a traffic stop. Augustine was convicted of killing a Fayetteville police officer.
The judges ruling means that sentences for four death row inmates now have been changed to lifetime prison sentences with no possibility for parole.
In April, Weeks converted the death sentence for Marcus Reymond Robinson, the first of more than 150 death row inmates seeking relief under the law.
In Robinsons case, Weeks issued a strongly worded order, saying hearings had shown evidence that the jury selection process in capital cases, both statewide and locally, had systematically excluded blacks.
Then this summer, the legislature made sweeping changes to the Racial Justice Act, hoping to limit the use of statistics to the judicial district in which the inmates case was tried.
The governor vetoed the overhauled act, but the legislature overrode her veto.
The legislature, in its overhaul of the Racial Justice Act, said the changes to the law did not apply to Robinsons case since it was ruled on before the changes. But death penalty critics and advocates of using statistics in bias claims have argued that it would be unfair for all the death row inmates who filed bias claims under the 2009 law to not have a chance to argue their cases under that law.
Advocates of changes to the Racial Justice Act have argued that the 2009 wording allowed too sweeping a use of statistics.
They also argued that it was a back door attempt to do away with the death penalty, essentially blocking executions and keeping capital cases tied up in court for years longer than the traditional appeals process.
Advocates of the Racial Justice Act countered those contentions with arguments of their own about how the overhauled bill and the attempt to cut other death row inmates out of the legal loop would add a new layer of litigation.
As North Carolina politicians engaged in rigorous debate this year about whether capital punishment should exist, the juries that actually decide death-penalty cases made a statement of their own. No jury in North Carolina has come back with a death sentence this year, and there are no more capital cases on the 2012 docket.
Thats the first time since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated in this state, that a jury has not sentenced at least one person to execution.
Ken Rose, a senior staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said Thursday that he expected challenges of Weeks decisions.
Our hearts go out to the victims in these cases. Five people lost their lives in senseless crimes, and we would never diminish the suffering their families have experienced, Rose said in a prepared statement. However, as a justice-seeking society, we cannot allow race to play a role in determining who receives a death sentence in North Carolina. Voiding these death sentences, in favor of life imprisonment, was the only fair thing to do.
The three inmates whose death sentences were abandoned filed their challenges in 2010 before the legislative overhaul of the Racial Justice Act. Critics of the changes and advocates for them agree that Weeks ruling could lead to lawsuits that take years to settle.
The evidence that our capital punishment system is infected by racial bias has become too great to deny, Rose said. But, because some of our state lawmakers dont 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 Carolinas death penalty.
Colonel Michael Gilchrist, commander of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, issued a statement.
"I am certainly disappointed that the sentence for a convicted murderer of 2 law enforcement officers has been set aside and that the jury's sentence will not be carried out, Gilcrhist said in a prepared statement. Law enforcement officers don't make the laws, we support them and enforce them, it's not our place to be critical of them. It is important that we support the law enforcement officers who protect us and support their families as well and that's what we are doing.