FAYETTEVILLE – Days after the Republican-controlled General Assembly finished reworking the Racial Justice Act, lawyers are already moving to test the boundaries of the new law.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys met in the Cumberland County courthouse on Friday morning to work out preliminary details on how four North Carolina death row inmates will have their sentences reviewed under the rolled-back act.
Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks refused requests from Assistant Cumberland District Attorney Rob Thompson for the judge to take himself off the case or postpone future hearings indefinitely. He also ruled prosecutors had two weeks to give the defense evidence collected related to the Racial Justice Act.
Thompson didn’t mince words with how the state feels about the flood of inmates attempting to scale back their sentences.
“We consider it to be an attack,” Thompson said. “The defense is telling us you chose juries in a racist manner and we take issue with that every single time it’s said and every single way it’s said and we wish to defend ourselves.”
Four inmates, all convicted of brutal murders, are seeking to have their death sentences lessened to life in prison under the Racial Justice Act, which allows appeals if racial bias during the trial is proved.
They are Tilmon Golphin, a 34-year-old black man; Quintel Augustine, a 34-year-old black man; Christina Walters, a 33-year-old American Indian woman; and Jeffrey Meyer, a 45-year-old European man. All were convicted of first degree murder in Cumberland County.
Lawmakers scaled back the Racial Justice Act during the summer legislative session by limiting the use of statistics that can be used to prove racial bias and legislating that statistics alone are not sufficient to prove bias. The Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue’s veto of the changes Monday. This puts into limbo almost all the state’s more than 150 death row inmates, nearly all of whom applied for life in prison under the 2009 law.
The revised law makes clear the framework for future convicts, but it is unknown if existing appeals made by prisoners will be upheld under the law at the time they applied or under the scaled-back law.
Friday’s preliminary hearing was the first step in a lengthy and costly process that will allow the court system to work out the issue.
The first item heard in the preliminary hearing was a motion by the prosecution to remove Judge Weeks from the case. Weeks, one of only a handful of black Superior Court judges in North Carolina, is the only judge to reduce a sentence under the original Racial Justice Act.
Thompson, who unsuccessfully tried to have Weeks removed from the previous racial justice case, cited new language in the reworked law that permits judges to be used as witnesses. If Weeks is a witness, Thompson argued, he cannot serve as judge.
“It says judicial officials,” Thompson said. “That shows clear legislative intent that the state can now call judges.”
Weeks ruled that despite the new language, he would not be able to serve as a witness.
“Nothing has changed...,” Weeks said. “There is clear case law indicated that judges are not permitted to testify as to the mental impressions, mental processes or thought processes in cases.”
The lawyers also contested the rescheduling of a July 23 hearing. Thompson requested the hearing date be postponed indefinitely until he had a statistical expert ready. He suggested that because the convicted killers can at best get life in prison, there’s no need to rush.
“If we went forward on the 23rd without an expert, we might as well be in a boxing ring with our hands tied behind our backs blindfolded on our knees and hogtied,” Thompson said.
Prosecutors seek data to counter a study of the North Carolina judicial system by two Michigan State University law professors that found N.C. prosecutors eliminated black jurors more than twice as often as white jurors and that a defendant is nearly three times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white.
“This has been going on for three years,” said Tye Hunter, executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “To suggest they couldn’t do anything until they saw the study by Michigan State is absurd. They could have done their own study.”
Weeks eventually sided again with the defense, and pushed back the evidentiary hearing to an October 1 date suggested by Hunter.
The lawyers and Weeks expect the fallout of the Racial Justice Act revisions to be litigated for years, but in attendance was a family that is tired of waiting.
Dixie Davis was married to N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Ed Lowry, who was gunned down by Golphin. She said she appreciated that lawmakers recently scaled back the Racial Justice Act, but worried that reduced sentences could eventually lead to parole.
“Nothing’s changed; they’re as guilty now as they were then,” Davis said. “... It’s been a headache and a heartbreak, and as long as I’m alive I’m going to see this to the end. It should have been ended 15 years ago.”