North Carolina Court Reverses Racial Justice Act Ruling, Orders New Hearings

The North Carolina Supreme Court has reversed the historic rulings of a Cumberland County, N.C. trial court that had overturned the death sentences of four North Carolina death-row prisoners under the state's Racial Justice Act. Ruling entirely on procedural grounds, the state's high court expressed no opinion on the lower court's fact findings that North Carolina prosecutors had engaged in a decades-long practice of intentional race discrimination in jury selection in capital cases. In April 2012, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks overturned the death sentence imposed on Marcus Robinson (pictured, left),holding that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” at the time of Robinson’s trial. After a second hearing in the cases of Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin, the court again found that “a wealth of evidence show[ed] the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.” After the lower court overturned these death sentences and imposed sentences of life without parole, the North Carolina legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act law. In its ruling, the North Carolina Supreme Court said that the trial court should have given prosecutors more time to prepare for the evidentiary hearing at which the prisoners presented a comprehensive statistical analysis of North Carolina's exercise of discretionary strikes in capital prosecutions over a 20-year period. Writing that "fundamental fairness" required that the state be given "an adequate opportunity to prepare for this unusual and complex proceeding," the court invited both sides to present additional statistical evidence at a new hearing. In the second case, the court also said the three prisoners' Racial Justice Act claims should have been heard separately. Executions have been stayed indefinitely in North Carolina pending resolution of the Racial Justice Act litigation and will remain on hold.

Defense lawyers expressed confidence that they would prevail "no matter how many hearings are held or studies completed.” Jay Ferguson, one of the lawyers for the inmates, said: “The evidence of racial bias in jury selection is simply overwhelming and undeniable. All this decision will do is add more delays and cost the state millions to conduct new studies and hold new hearings. We will be throwing more taxpayer money into a hopelessly broken death penalty.”

(A. Blythe, NC Supreme Court vacates Racial Justice Act decisions, The News & Observer, December 18, 2015; State v. Robinson, No. 411A94-5, Opinion of the North Carolina Supreme Court, December 18, 2015.) See Race.