By David Weiss
On Sept. 25, 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Christina Walters, Quintel Augustine and Tilmon Golphin had been unlawfully returned to death row after receiving life sentences under the state’s Racial Justice Act (RJA).
In each of the three cases, NCAJ filed an amicus brief written by Bidish Sarma and Burton Craige. NCAJ’s brief addressed one of two grounds on which the Supreme Court granted relief: that it violated constitutional protections against double jeopardy to reimpose death sentences on Walters, Augustine, and Golphin after they had proven at prior hearings that they were entitled to life sentences under the RJA.
The North Carolina legislature passed the RJA in 2009. Subsequently, a statewide study showed that in capital trials prosecutors dismissed Black citizens at 2.5 times the rate they excluded whites. This disparity was driven entirely by race and could not be attributed to any other factor, such as death penalty views. The study also found that crimes with white victims were twice as likely to be punished with death.
Walters, Augustine, and Golphin — along with Marcus Robinson, who was resentenced to life in August — were the only four death row prisoners to have RJA hearings before the law was repealed in 2013. All four won their cases, using the study to show a pattern of race discrimination in North Carolina capital trials. The defendants also unearthed prosecutors’ notes referring to jurors with denigrating terms like “blk wino,” and training materials showing that their prosecutors had been instructed on how to invent “race-neutral” reasons to justify their strikes of Black jurors.
In 2012, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks resentenced all four to life without parole after finding a “wealth of evidence” that systemic exclusion of Black jurors had tainted their death sentences. However, after the repeal of the RJA, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned Weeks’ ruling on procedural grounds, saying the hearings should have been held separately rather than jointly and that prosecutors should have had more time to prepare their case, even though the trial court had already given the state two continuances. The court ordered new RJA hearings for the four defendants, and in a legally questionable move, the N.C. Department of Public Safety quickly returned them to death row.
Now, the Supreme Court has ruled that the reinstatement of their death sentences was unlawful and has restored life sentences for all four defendants. Because the court decided the cases under state law, its decisions are final.
In a separate ruling in June, the court also said that all North Carolina death row prisoners who filed RJA claims before the law’s 2013 repeal are entitled to hearings where they can present evidence that prosecutors purposefully excluded African American citizens from their juries and that racism tainted their trials. The courts have not yet decided how those cases will proceed.
Finally, the Supreme Court’s RJA decisions are important for reasons in addition to defendants’ individual cases. At a time of broad agreement that our criminal system requires reform in order to achieve racial equity, the court’s opinions shed light on our collective failure to protect Black citizens’ right to serve on juries, and inaction in the face of racial bias – both unconscious and purposeful – in death penalty prosecutions. Going forward, the RJA now provides a way of addressing these persistent injustices.