RALEIGH – Four North Carolina death row inmates are scheduled to have their sentences reviewed under the revised Racial Justice Act in a hearing that could reveal the first fallout of the N.C. General Assembly’s recent rollbacks to the law.
N.C. Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks has scheduled a preliminary hearing this morning in Fayetteville. The four convicted murderers are trying to use the law that allows death row prisoners to use statistics to show that racial bias influenced their sentences.
Tye Hunter, executive director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said the convicts want to have their sentences reduced to life in prison under the original 2009 Racial Justice Act, not the amended version passed by the General Assembly last month.
Weeks will examine the cases of 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.
Golphin and his underage brother Kevin were convicted of gunning down two law officers in 1997 after their stolen car was pulled over on Interstate 95. Augustine was part of a group of four who taunted Fayetteville Ppolice Officer Roy Turner Jr., and then shot him in the head and shoulder once he got out of his car.
Walters, as part of a gang initiation, abducted and shot three teenage girls in 1998 – killing two of them. Meyer and an accomplice, who dressed in black ninja-garb and were allegedly inspired by the tabletop game “Dungeons and Dragons,” killed an elderly couple in 1986 with a blowgun and knives.
Their sentences have been in limbo during the past three years while lawmakers went back and forth on how to address race in the courtroom.
Lawmakers this year rolled back the 2009 act. Governor Beverly Perdue vetoed the bill after a public outcry, but the Republican-led House overrode the veto.
Nearly all of North Carolina’s 150-plus death row inmates filed for reviews after the 2009 act passed. Proponents of the rollback said the recent amendments were needed to keep the state’s courts from being bogged down. The amended law puts a time limit on applicable statistics and restricts data to the geographical area near where the crime was committed. The bill also said statistics alone cannot prove race was a factor– a restriction some say makes such proof nearly impossible.
The freshly amended law makes it clear how to handle future death penalty cases, but what will happen to the approximately 150 inmates who appealed under the old law is unknown. The new law provides 60 days for inmates to revise their appeals to comply with the amendments, but it is not clear if the original appeals are still valid.
“It definitely kind of murkies the water in that you’ve had a lot of change, and to some extent it’s up in the air,” said Hunter, who is helping represent the four convicts. “It is certainly going to cause a lot more litigation.”
The original appeals, Hunter said, will likely take years to move through state courts. He said they might be appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court and through federal courts as well. The four convicts up for review Friday are the beginning of that process, Hunter said.
“It’s not as straightforward as some people have assumed,” Hunter said.
It’s no coincidence that the case is in Weeks’ court. Hunter said the testing of the new law was chosen for Cumberland County because of Weeks’ prior experience with the Racial Justice Act.
In the first and only case under the 2009 Racial Justice Act, Weeks ruled that condemned killer Marcus Robinson’s 1991 trial was racially influenced to the point where Robinson should be removed from death row.
Robinson is a black man convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991 and was almost executed in 2007. Weeks said he found highly reliable a study by two Michigan State University law professors who analyzed the influence of race in the North Carolina judicial system. They found 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.