In the wake of a second judicial finding of racial bias in North Carolina death penalty trials, newspapers are speaking out. The News & Observer of Raleigh publishes the editorial, "A just ruling."
The anguish of families and colleagues of the victims in three murder cases, reacting to a judge’s ruling that the convicted killers deserved life in prison without parole instead of the death penalties they received, was deep and understandable. The families undoubtedly feel that justice has been denied.
But despite the sympathy all feel for the victims and those they left behind, justice is not about getting revenge. It is about trial and conviction (or acquittal) and punishment arrived at fairly. And that was not the case with the death penalties given to Christina Walters, Tilmon Golphin and Quintel Augustine, said Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks at a Thursday hearing. Rather, he said, their trials and sentences contained clear evidence of racial discrimination.
Weeks cites in a ruling of over 200 pages examples of how prosecutors used twisted reasoning to strike prospective jurors who might have been sympathetic to minority-race defendants. One example: In Augustine’s case, he wrote that “despite strong evidence” that a juror “was targeted for exclusion from Augustine’s jury because of her residence in a black neighborhood,” the prosecutor “never told the trial judge he was striking her for that reason.”
When race influences jury selection, does that make for fair trials? It does not. And could there be a worst-case scenario than such maneuvers going on with the death penalty in the mix? No. Critics say the Racial Justice Act is a back-door route to abolition of the death penalty. (No juries have delivered death sentences in the state this year, by the way.) That would be positive, frankly, because only a perfect judicial system doesn’t make mistakes. As recent rulings show, North Carolina’s system is far from that.
"Justice, not retribution, is what should be blind," is the Charlotte Observer editorial.
A Cumberland County judge’s decision last week to commute three killers’ death sentences to life in prison is hard for a lot of folks to swallow, and understandably so.
Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine deserve no pity. Between them, they killed a state trooper, a sheriff’s deputy, a police officer and two women. They deserve the stiffest punishment the law allows.
So we sympathize with people like Al Lowry, who yelled an expletive at Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks before being removed from the courtroom Thursday. Golphin was convicted of killing Lowry’s brother, state Trooper Ed Lowry, during a traffic stop in 1997. Al Lowry and some family members of other victims were distraught that Weeks had reduced the trio’s sentences to life in prison without parole. How could anyone be soft on such undeniable evil-doers?
The question before Weeks, however – and before all judges that could soon hear appeals under the state’s Racial Justice Act – is not whether to be soft or tough. It’s whether justice is being done. Justice that punishes the guilty – and does so through a fair and unbiased system.
"The true measure," is the Lumberton Robesonian editorial.
The last few days haven’t favored the U.S. Constitution, that venerable 225-year-old document from which all that is great about this country has derived.
On Thursday, a Superior Court judge in Cumberland County commuted the sentences to life in prison of three death row inmates, including two who had killed police officers. The lives of Christina “Queen” Walters, Tilmon Golphin and Quintel Augustine will be spared — barring a successful appeal by the state — not because any had been redeemed in the eyes of the law; they remain cold-blooded murderers who killed without reason or provocation, snuffing out lives of promise and bringing never-ending and untold grief to the families and friends of their victims.
Their lives were spared because Judge Gregory A. Weeks concluded that prosecutors, during jury selection, plotted to dismiss jurors of color, making the jury too white and too hostile to people of color — Walters is a Lumbee Indian, and Golphin and Augustine are black. Weeks determined that these three murderers were consequently denied a fair trial, which is guaranteed under this country’s Constitution.
It is now that we must remember that the Constitution’s greatness is measured by its 225-year record, not by events of late last week — and that the gift of living in the land of liberty is not without a price.
Ted Mohn posts, "NC Racial Justice Act, Jury Selection & Peremptory Challenges," a the Fayetteville Observer - What You Think blog
What would be the impact (pros and cons) if the NC General Assembly eliminated peremptory challenges from our State Statutes?
Proponents of peremptory challenges say this type of challenge helps eliminate potential jurors that may have some type of bias related to the case or potential sentencing. Do you think this potential bias can be identified with proper questions, and if found, the potential juror could be removed via § 15A-1212. Grounds for challenge for cause versus the use of peremptory challenge?
In today's society is there still a need for the two parties to have peremptory challenges during jury selection? If so, does either party need to afforded up to 14 peremptory challenges in capital cases?
Would the removal of peremptory challenges from our State Statutes help ensure future death penalty sentences are not commuted to life in prison without parole under the Racial Justice Act?
Tell me what you think when you get some time.
The Fayetteville Observer also carries a news article, "Disagreement after Racial Justice Act commutations over when murder cases went wrong," by Paul Woolverton.
The trials in three notorious murder cases in Cumberland County suffered from gross miscarriages of justice, critics say.
But where these cases went wrong is a far more complex question.
Was it Thursday, when a judge used the N.C. Racial Justice Act to commute the death sentences of Tilmon Golphin, Christina S. Walters and Quintel Augustine?
Or was it a decade or more ago, when the killers were tried and sentenced by juries that defense lawyers argue were unfairly chosen by race?
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks' ruling unleashed a torrent of strong emotions from both sides - those who are furious over what they perceive as justice undone, and those who believe a judge is finally acknowledging institutionalized racism in the state's judicial process.
"This conclusion is based primarily on the words and deeds of the prosecutors involved in Defendants' cases," Weeks wrote in his ruling. "In the writings 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."
His 210-page ruling says a prosecutor kept a "cheat sheet" of legally acceptable excuses for peremptorily striking black jurors to mask bias-based reasons. Statistical evidence "shows that in Defendants' cases, in Cumberland County, and in North Carolina as a whole, prosecutors strike African Americans at double the rate they strike other potential jurors," Weeks said.
And Weeks was troubled that in two other murder trials, where white racist skinheads James Burmeister and Malcolm Wright were tried for killing two blacks, the evidence suggested that prosecutors strove to seat jurors who were black.
"Comparing the prosecution's jury selection in Burmeister and Wright to Defendants' cases, the Court finds compelling empirical evidence that race, not reservations about the death penalty, not connections to the criminal justice system, but race, drives prosecution decisions about which citizens may participate in one of the most important and visible aspects of democratic government," Weeks wrote.
Earlier coverage of the North Carolina Racial Justice Act begins at the link.