A Cumberland County judge’s decision last week to commute three killers’ death sentences to life in prison is hard for a lot of folks to swallow, and understandably so.
Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine deserve no pity. Between them, they killed a state trooper, a sheriff’s deputy, a police officer and two women. They deserve the stiffest punishment the law allows.
So we sympathize with people like Al Lowry, who yelled an expletive at Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks before being removed from the courtroom Thursday. Golphin was convicted of killing Lowry’s brother, state Trooper Ed Lowry, during a traffic stop in 1997. Al Lowry and some family members of other victims were distraught that Weeks had reduced the trio’s sentences to life in prison without parole. How could anyone be soft on such undeniable evil-doers?
The question before Weeks, however – and before all judges that could soon hear appeals under the state’s Racial Justice Act – is not whether to be soft or tough. It’s whether justice is being done. Justice that punishes the guilty – and does so through a fair and unbiased system.
The Racial Justice Act, passed by the legislature in 2009 and made tougher on convicts this year, says that death row inmates can have their sentences reduced to life in prison without parole if they can prove that race was a factor in their sentencing. The law, passed with votes from both parties, was born from an acknowledgment that North Carolina, like much of the nation, has a history of racial bias embedded in its administration of the death penalty.
Golphin, Walters and Augustine argued that prosecutors influenced their sentencing by systematically blocking blacks from serving on the juries. Weeks agreed they did.
The judge cited statistics showing a frequent racial bias in jury selection in Cumberland County at the time of the trials. He also pointed to prosecutors’ handwritten notes, including ones that used racially charged terms to describe potential jurors, and ones that noted the race of black potential jurors but not white ones. One prosecutor, Weeks agreed, struck potential jurors from consideration simply for being from black neighborhoods. Prosecutors in some Cumberland County cases would cite certain characteristics when striking black jurors, but then accept white jurors with the same characteristics, Weeks ruled.
Any anger over these sentence reductions, then, should be channeled toward the prosecutors for their improper tactics, not toward Weeks. It is this kind of bias that legislators sought to root out.
We supported last summer’s toughening of the RJA. The 2009 version granted death row inmates a very low burden of proof by allowing them to use statewide statistics and not requiring evidence from their individual trials. The amended law narrowed which statistics could be considered valid and, it was said, put a higher burden on inmates to show discrimination in their individual case.
We’re troubled by Weeks’ finding that defendants can still rely on historical patterns but need not show specific bias in their individual trials. Appeals courts will decide if Weeks’ interpretation is correct. If it is, the legislature should take a third try at requiring case-specific evidence.
These crimes were horrific. We should all want a justice system that leaves no doubt that the defendants fairly get what they deserve.
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