The case so far
Robinson, Golphin, Augustine and Walters were the first of North Carolina’s approximately 150 death row inmates to have their cases heard under the Racial Justice Act, a groundbreaking law intended to root out racial discrimination in capital cases. All four defendants proved that racial bias infected their trials and that African-Americans are systematically denied the right to serve on capital juries.
During their 2012 hearings, the defendants presented evidence that prosecutors in Cumberland County, where they were tried, took racially charged notes during the jury selection process (noting, for example, that one juror was a “black wino”). Cumberland prosecutors also participated in a training seminar, sponsored by the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, where prosecutors from across North Carolina were taught ways to get around the law barring them from striking jurors based on race. After listening to weeks of testimony and sorting through documents and statistics that spanned decades, Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks said he found “a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.”
The Racial Justice Act was enacted in 2009, on the heels of the exonerations of three black men on North Carolina’s death row. The law allowed inmates who prove that racial bias contributed to their death sentences to be resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Most of North Carolina’s death row inmates filed claims under the law, after a study from Michigan State University found that qualified black jurors in North Carolina were more than twice as likely as whites to be removed from juries by prosecutors, with the use of peremptory strikes. The Michigan State researchers reviewed 173 capital trials in North Carolina between 1990 and 2010.
Despite the compelling evidence of racial bias presented by Robinson, Golphin, Augustine and Walters — the only four defendants to have their cases heard under the law — state legislators repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013. However, the claims made under the law are still pending, and the courts will decide whether those cases go forward. Next week’s hearings are expected to address only the four defendants whose cases have been appealed.