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State Supreme Court sends Racial Justice Act cases back to trial court

In orders issued today, the state Supreme Court sent two Racial Justice Act cases back to the trial court for further review.

In State v. Robinson, the justices held that the trial court erred when it failed to give the state additional time to address a Michigan State statistical study submitted on behalf of Marcus Robinson.

Per the order:

Respondent’s study concerned the exercise of peremptory challenges in capital cases by prosecutors in Cumberland County, the former Second Judicial Division, and the State of North Carolina between 1990 and 2010. The breadth of respondent’s study placed petitioner in the position of defending the peremptory challenges that the State of North Carolina had exercised in capital prosecutions over a twenty-year period. Petitioner had very limited time, however, between the delivery of respondent’s study and the hearing date. Continuing this matter to give petitioner more time would have done no harm to respondent, whose remedy under the Act was a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Under these exceptional circumstances, fundamental fairness required that petitioner have an adequate opportunity to prepare for this unusual and complex proceeding.

The justices also today vacated the trial court’s decision in State v. Augustine — the second Racial Justice Act challenge  saying that the judge’s refusal to grant the state more time to respond to the Michigan State study “infected” his ruling in this subsequent case.

The Racial Justice Act, enacted in 2009, allowed death row inmates to seek a reduction in their sentence to life without parole upon a showing — through statistical evidence and otherwise — that race was a significant factor in the imposition of their sentences.

At the time, a review of state Supreme Court decisions showed that the court rarely if ever sustained a challenge to the racial composition of a jury under Batson, and death penalty opponents hailed the passage of the Act as a necessary safeguard from continued racial bias in the judicial system.

From day one, though, prosecutors and other proponents set out to overturn the Act. In 2011, the state senate garnered enough votes for repeal but could not override Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto.

By 2012, the legislature managed by amendment to rein in significant provisions of the RJA, limiting the scope of statistical evidence upon which inmates could rely to prove their claims.

Most of the state’s 152 death row inmates filed motions for appropriate relief, seeking to have their sentences commuted under the Act, but only a few saw their cases move to trial and decision.

Marcus Robinson became the first to have his sentence reduced in April 2012, when Cumberland County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks, in a 167-page order, found that race was a significant factor in the imposition of the death penalty statewide as well as in Robinson’s own case.

On the heels of Robinson, death row inmates Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine asked Weeks to reduce their respective sentences.

But shortly before hearings began in July 2012 in those cases, the legislature amended the RJA to require more than just statistical evidence to prove a claim of racial bias.

The inmates sought to do that in the hearings that followed, and in an opinion sharply critical of the prosecution not only for its conduct during the underlying murder cases but also for continuing to delay RJA proceedings while lobbying for a repeal of the Act in the legislature, Weeks commuted each of their sentences to life without parole.

In his 210-page order, Weeks wrote: “This conclusion is based primarily on the words and deeds of the prosecutors involved in Defendants’ cases. 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.”

That evidence included prosecutors’ notes discussing the race of potential jurors and “cheat sheets” used to offer up pretextual excuses for eliminating black jurors.

“Despite her testimony to the contrary, the evidence was overwhelming that this prosecutor relied upon a ‘cheat sheet’ of pat explanations to defeat challenges in numerous cases when her disproportionate and discriminatory strikes against African-American venire members were called into question,” Weeks said.

Both cases now will now return to the trial court in Cumberland County for reconsideration of the inmates’ requests to have their death sentences commuted to life without parole.

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