A judge in North Carolina in 2012 has once again confirmed that race plays an integral role in our capital punishment system. Judge Gregory Weeks found intentional discrimination by Cumberland County prosecutors against African-American potential jurors in the cases of three capital defendants, Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters, and Quintel Augustine. He sentenced all three defendants to life without parole under North Carolina's historic Racial Justice Act. The decision is currently on appeal.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009, and amended in 2012. It is one of two such statutes in the nation, allows death row inmates to present evidence that race was a significant factor in the capital sentencing process. Weeks concluded that all three defendants were entitled to relief under both the original, broader version of the law and the narrower version recently enacted.
Weeks issued his opinion after hearing four weeks
of testimony and sifting through of pages of documents and statistics spanning two decades. He concluded that prosecutors words and deeds reflected pervasive discrimination in all three cases.
While potential black jurors were purportedly dismissed for reasons such as reservations about the death penalty, criminal background, hardship or employment, white jurors with similar characteristics were left on jury panels, according to the evidence. Two of the three defendants were black, and both were tried by overwhelmingly white juries. Augustine’s jury was all white, and Golphin’s had only one African American member.
Judge Weeks acknowledged in his decision the corrupting influence race plays in capital punishment cases: “The Court takes hope that acknowledgment of the ugly truth of race discrimination revealed by Defendants’ evidence is the first step in creating a system of justice that is free from the pernicious influence of race, a system that truly lives up to our ideal of equal justice under the law.”