Justices must decide whether evidence of jury discrimination in capital cases will come to light
For Immediate Release: August 19, 2019
For More Information Contact: David Weiss, 919-593-7790 or Jin Hee Lee, 917-202-8848
Raleigh, NC — The N.C. Supreme Court will hear arguments next week, August 26 and 27, in the cases of six death row prisoners who have presented evidence that racial bias tainted their trials and death sentences.
The Racial Justice Act (RJA) was a first-of-its-kind law that allowed for a systematic review of racial discrimination in death penalty trials. Death row prisoners who proved discrimination had to be resentenced to life in prison without parole. The law was enacted in 2009, and its passage led to the uncovering of new evidence of discrimination. In 2013 a newly elected legislature repealed the RJA. That same legislature enacted voting laws that federal courts later determined to be racially motivated.
Now, the Supreme Court must decide whether the six defendants, who filed claims while the law was in effect, have a constitutional right to present their evidence of discrimination in court. The state seeks to dismiss all six defendants’ RJA claims without hearings.
“The court must answer a key question for North Carolina,” said David Weiss, a staff attorney with Durham’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation, one of several law firms that represents the RJA defendants. “Will our state abide by its constitution and confront the evidence that race has played an unacceptable role in death penalty trials? Or will we throw the evidence away without a hearing and send the message that pervasive racial bias doesn’t matter, even in life-and-death trials?”
The court will hear the following cases:
Marcus Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters, and Quintel Augustine from Cumberland County are the only four death row prisoners whose RJA cases were heard in court. In 2012, they won and were resentenced to life in prison without parole. On appeal, all four were returned to death row after the N.C. Supreme Court sent their cases back to Superior Court for a redo, saying that each defendant should get a separate hearing and that the state should be given more time to prepare. Yet, when the cases went back to Superior Court, a judge dismissed them without new hearings. The Supreme Court will decide whether Robinson, Golphin, Walters and Augustine have a right to the life sentences they previously won under the RJA, or whether they have a right to new hearings.
Andrew Ramseur and Rayford Burke are death row prisoners from Iredell County who filed RJA claims before the law’s repeal, but never got hearings. After the repeal, judges dismissed their claims, saying they no longer had a right to present evidence because the law was defunct. The Court will decide whether Ramseur and Burke have a constitutional right to litigate their claims.
The six defendants found a cache of evidence of race discrimination:
- A prosecutor referred to Burke as “a big black bull” during closing arguments.
During jury selection at Golphin’s trial, two white jurors suggested that Golphin should have been lynched, yet were allowed to remain in the jury pool.
- At Ramseur’s trial, the sheriff’s department cordoned off the area behind the defense table with crime scene tape, prejudicing the jury and forcing the defendant’s black family to sit in the back of the courtroom.
- A black juror in Robinson’s case was questioned about whether he had gone “straight through” school, implying he may have repeated grades. The prosecutor also questioned his ability to read. White jurors were not asked these demeaning questions.
- In Augustine’s case, prosecutors wrote insulting notes about black jurors. A black juror with criminal history was a “thug” while a white juror who trafficked in drugs was “a fine guy.” A black juror was a “blk wino” while a white juror with a DUI conviction was a “country boy – ok.” A Black woman was acceptable because she was “from a respectable BLK family.”
- In several cases, prosecutors relied on a “cheat sheet” of prefabricated reasons to justify striking black jurors.
- In all cases, a statistical study showed that prosecutors struck qualified black jurors at far higher rates than white jurors, denying African American citizens the fundamental right to wield power in the jury box and defendants the right to a jury of their peers.
“These defendants uncovered a mountain of evidence that race played a role in their death sentences. Now, the law requires that our state deal with that evidence,” Weiss said. “If the justices don’t allow these defendants a fair hearing, North Carolina will have given up even the pretense of believing in justice for all.”
Racial discrimination in the jury box is a national problem, which was highlighted again in June when the U.S. Supreme Court granted a new trial to Mississippi death row prisoner Curtis Flowers because the prosecutor systematically excluded black jurors over the course of six trials.
“Jury discrimination is one of the key civil rights issues of our time,” said Jin Hee Lee, Senior Deputy Director of Litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed a brief in support of the RJA cases. Founded by Thurgood Marshall, LDF becomes involved in cases when they present a chance to advance racial justice. Lee continued, “It threatens the integrity of our justice system and our democracy when we allow black citizens to be illegally barred from jury service. We hope North Carolina will give the evidence in these capital cases the serious consideration it deserves, and take needed steps to end race discrimination in North Carolina’s death penalty.”
Oral arguments begin at 9:30 a.m. Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 26 and 27 in the chambers of the N.C. Supreme Court, 2 East Morgan Street, Raleigh. On Monday, the court will hear the cases of Ramseur, Walters, Robinson, Burke, and Augustine. On Tuesday, it will hear Golphin’s case.
Read more from the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
For the full briefs filed in the cases, click here.