Today's Fayetteville Observer publishes the editorial, "Racial justice begins with a just society."
So: Are some crimes so heinous that it doesn't matter if race laid a finger on the scales of justice?
At an even more basic level, who are our models? Who is it that we wish to be like? Sworn officers going in harm's way to protect the public? Responsible women getting off work at the end of their shifts? Or thugs indulging the homicidal impulse of the moment?
It is a choice and we do have to make it.
The hearings under the state's Racial Justice Act were not about guilt; guilt was established years ago, and was not revisited by Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks. In fact, under the statute he had no authority to revisit it; it was to be death or life, and racial taint, if any, was the only consideration.
Nor was this about sympathy for the perpetrators. Weeks spoke not of mercy, only about the 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."
That's another choice we cannot evade.
For the judge it was about individual cases, to which he applied the standards of both the original act and the more restrictive one crafted this year. The rest of us have trouble seeing past Golphin, Walters and Augustine, but it's about us, too, about people who have collectively decided not to be the kind of society that reveres justice only until it impedes our wrath.
News coverage of the ruling begins with the New York Times, "Judge in North Carolina Voids 3 Death Sentences," by Campbell Robertson.
A judge in North Carolina on Thursday ruled that race had played a significant role in the sentencing of three convicted murderers to death, and changed their sentences to life in prison without possibility of parole. It was the second such decision under the state’s Racial Justice Act and the first since the act was amended by the state legislature.
Lawyers representing Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine had argued under both the new and old versions of the act, contending that statistics as well as anecdotal and documentary evidence, like handwritten notes by prosecutors, showed that race influenced the sentencing process and particularly the picking of juries.
“In the writing of prosecutors long buried in case files and brought to light for the first time in this hearing, the court finds powerful evidence of race consciousness and race-based decision making,” wrote Judge Gregory Weeks of Cumberland County Superior Court, who also ruled last April in the first case to be heard under the Racial Justice Act.
According to a report on local TV station WRAL, the brother of a state trooper killed by Mr. Golphin had to be removed from the courtroom, shouting, “Judge, you had your mind made up before this ever started!”
The Wall Street Journal Law Blog posts, "Three More Spared Death Penalty Under Controversial NC Law," by Ashby Jones.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors disagree on which version of the law may be used. It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday which version Judge Weeks relied on.
In the meantime, no jury in North Carolina has come back with a death sentence this year, and there are no more capital cases on the 2012 docket. That’s the first time since the death penalty was reinstated in North Carolina that a jury has not sentenced at least one person to execution.
"Judge commutes three death sentences; cites bias," is the AP filing, via the Elizabeth City Daily Advance.
A North Carolina judge on Thursday commuted the death sentences of three convicted killers, including two who killed law enforcement officers, to life in prison without the possibility of parole after ruling that race played an unjust role in jury selection at their trials.
N.C. Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks in Cumberland County based his ruling on evidence presented over four weeks of hearings that he says showed prosecutors in each case made a concerted effort to reduce the number of black jurors.
The three who had their sentences commuted were among the most notorious killers on North Carolina's death row. Two had killed law enforcement officers.
Family members of the victims and more than 60 uniformed police officers packed the courtroom. Before Weeks could finish issuing his ruling, the brother of a murdered state trooper stood up and yelled an expletive at the judge.
The Republican-controlled Legislature recently scaled back the state's Racial Justice Act, on which Thursday's ruling was based. Weeks said his ruling applies under both the old and new laws.
He cited evidence that included handwritten notes of prosecutors indicating they worked to get blacks eliminated from the pool of jurors, resulting in panels that were overwhelmingly white.
"This conclusion is based primarily on the words and deeds of the prosecutors involved in these cases," Weeks, who is black, said from the bench. "Despite protestations to the contrary, their words, their deeds, speak volumes. During presentation of evidence, the court finds powerful and persuasive evidence of racial consciousness, race-based decision making in the writings of prosecutors long buried in the case files and brought to light for the first time during this hearing."
"Judge finds racial bias played a role in three death row cases," is by Anne Blythe for the News & Observer.
Attorneys for the defendants argued during a nine-day hearing in October that prosecutors had systematically tried to prevent blacks from serving on the juries for the trials. The defense team presented statistics and handwritten notes from prosecutors’ case files to bolster its contentions.
Prosecutors argued racial bias did not play a role in the cases. They challenged statistical evidence that shows prosecutors at the time of the trials systematically struck potential black jurors from sitting on juries in capital cases in Cumberland County and across North Carolina.
Prosecutors plan to appeal the ruling, as they did in the case of Marcus Reymond Robinson, the first death row inmate to successfully challenge and have his sentence converted to life without parole under the Racial Justice Act.
The state Supreme Court is scheduled to announce this month whether it will hear the Robinson case.
"Cumberland County judge rules in favor of 3 death row inmates in Racial Justice Act cases," by Paul Woolverton in the Fayetteville Observer.
Walters, Augustine and Golphin are the second, third and fourth people to win Racial Justice Act claims since the state legislature adopted the law in 2009. The first was Marcus Reymond Robinson of Fayetteville; Weeks commuted his sentence in April.
Another 144 death row defendants have Racial Justice Act claims pending. Eight condemned men are not attempting to use the law.
The law, which the Republican-controlled legislature revised this year to make it harder for defendants to win claims, allows condemned inmates of any race to advance a claim that institutional racism led to their death sentences.
In light of the law, studies have found that people who kill whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill nonwhites. And, studies have shown, blacks who favor the death penalty are blocked by prosecutors from serving on capital juries far more often than whites.
Prosecutors contend that the studies are flawed. The aggregate results of the studies ignore that each case, and each decision to strike a juror, is unique, they argue.
Weeks said his ruling falls under terms of both the 2009 version of the Racial Justice Act and this year's revision.
"Judge: Race a factor in picking juries for death penalty cases," is the WRAL-TV report by Bryan Mims.
Lawyers for Christina "Queen" Walters, Tilmon Golphin and Quintel Augustine argued at a hearing in October that statistics and handwritten notes from prosecutors show racial bias in jury selection. Golphin and Augustine are black, while Walters is Native American.
Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks agreed with their motions for re-sentencing under the state's Racial Justice Act, saying there was "powerful and unmistakable" evidence of race-conscious jury selection.
"Although they have committed heinous crimes, they were sentenced to death in a process that was focused more on obtaining death sentences than it was in ensuring the process was fair," Weeks said.
Notes from the trials showed that prosecutors used racially charged terms and struck qualified minorities from juries at double the rate than whites, the judge said. He dismissed prosecutors' arguments that every choice of selecting jurors is unique and cannot be pinned on racial bias.
"The court finds no joy in these conclusions," he said. "Indeed, the court cannot overstate the gravity and somber nature of its findings, nor can the court overstate the harm to African-American citizens and to the integrity of the justice system that results from racially discriminatory jury selection practices."
The brother of Highway Patrol Trooper Ed Lowry, whom Golphin and his brother, Kevin, killed in 1997 while fleeing arrest, had to be removed from the Cumberland County courtroom after he cursed at Weeks.
Earlier coverage of the ruling and the North Carolina RJA begins at the link.