North Carolina Concludes First Hearing Under Revised Racial Justice Act

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Uniformed police officers oppose relief in Fayetteville courtroom during Racial Justice Act hearing. Photo by Andrew Craft/Fayetteville Observer

Eight days of hearings concluded last week with closing arguments in the second-ever case brought under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act, which requires courts to vacate a death sentence where race was a factor in the imposition of the death penalty. This was the first hearing held since the law was changed in June to make it more difficult to prove racial bias.

In April, Cumberland County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks vacated Marcus Robinson's death sentence after finding that highly reliable evidence proved North Carolina prosecutors intentionally discriminated against African Americans in selecting capital juries. The groundbreaking ruling came after the state's first evidentiary hearing under the Racial Justice Act.

In June, North Carolina's Republican-led state legislature reworked the statute to prevent defendants from relying solely on broader statistical evidence to show racial discrimination. Defendants must now demonstrate that prosecutors discriminated in their particular case, which makes it much more difficult to prove racial bias.

Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, and Christina Walters are asking for relief from their death sentences on the grounds that prosecutors barred otherwise-qualified African Americans from serving on their juries at more than twice the rate of white individuals. Mr. Augustine was sentenced to death by an all-white jury for a crime committed in a county that was 35% African American. The prosecutor struck five out of seven black jurors in Mr. Golphin's case, and 10 out of 14 in Ms. Walters's case.

"If you are excluding people from serving on juries on the basis of race, you are compromising the integrity of the system of justice. The desire for a death sentence can't justify racial bias, especially given our history of racial injustice and inequality," said EJI's Bryan Stevenson, who testified during last week's hearing that, despite laws and Supreme Court decisions dating back to the late 1800s, Southern states continue to illegally block African Americans from serving on juries, as detailed in EJI's report, “Illegal Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: A Continuing Legacy.”

"The politics of fear and anger have made many criminal justice practitioners believe that the goal is conviction and maximum punishment, no matter what it takes -- including tolerating bias and abuses of power and discrimination," Mr. Stevenson told The Huffington Post. "The criminal justice system does present a unique challenge for confronting the legacy of racial inequality."