From the North Carolina News Service
By Stephanie Carroll Carson
RALEIGH, N.C. – It’s a waiting game now for supporters and opponents of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA). On Monday, the state Supreme Court heard arguments in the cases of four defendants who were the only inmates removed from death row under the RJA.
The legislation was passed in 2009, but was overturned four years later. The four inmates’ sentences were converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole because they were able to prove race was a factor in their jury selection. Now it’s up to the state’s highest court to decide if the ruling will hold.
Jay Ferguson represents three of the inmates.
“Having access to the new law was critical in these cases because it allowed us to see more evidence that the defendants didn’t have at trial, evidence that had never seen the light of day until this hearing, like prosecutors’ notes showing racial discrimination,” Ferguson said.
Marcus Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine and Christina Walters were the first of approximately 150 North Carolina death row inmates to have their cases heard under the Racial Justice Act. Ferguson said it could take weeks or even months for the court to issue a ruling.
While Ferguson said he believes the justices will rule in the inmates’ favor, he added it’s unfortunate that the RJA isn’t available for future inmates to argue that race was a factor in their sentencing.
“Now, once all this evidence sees the light of day, the Legislature decides to do away with the law, instead of trying to address the real issue, and that’s the fact that race is playing a role in jury selection in capital cases,” he said.
More than 100 other cases are pending that were filed before the law was repealed. After the RJA was passed, Michigan State University conducted an independent study and found that qualified black jurors in North Carolina were more than twice as likely as whites to be removed from juries by prosecutors.