News

Second Racial Justice Act attorney cleared of alleged ethics violations

State BarThe North Carolina State Bar has reversed a prior panel ruling and cleared attorney Cassandra Stubbs of ethics violations alleged to have occurred during her representation of death row inmate Marcus Robinson in his Racial Justice Act challenge.

Stubbs is the second of Robinson’s attorneys to have her name cleared, after charges were lodged against her and attorney Gretchen Engel for allegedly providing inaccurate affidavits to Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks during Robinson’s case.

Weeks ultimately ordered in that case that Robinson’s death sentence be reduced to life without parole after finding that racial bias permeated his jury selection, and has said that the affidavits at issue did not impact his decision, according to WRAL.

In July 2015 a State Bar panel admonished Stubbs for violating rules of professional conduct,  but two months later a separate panel cleared Engel of ethics violations in connection with the same affidavits.

In her hearing, Engel said her failure to correct the affidavits was an oversight and not intentional.

Once Engel was cleared, Stubbs asked the State Bar panel to reconsider her case, which it did yesterday — issuing this order dismissing the complaint against her.

News

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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News

Now there are six

NCSupremeCourt

After more than 20 years on the state Supreme Court, Chief Justice Sarah Parker stepped down on Saturday, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 72 in August.

Her picture has already been removed from the court’s website, with one of the newly-appointed temporary chief, Justice Mark Martin, taking its place.

Her legacy drew praise from colleagues and contemporaries alike.

“Sarah is a quintessential professional,” former justice Bob Orr said in this post. “She has a sense of the history and tradition of the court as well as the system. She’s been a good chief justice in difficult times.”

Parker was mindful of those difficult times, especially near the end of her tenure, as the court itself became increasingly politicized and the state’s judicial system struggled under the weight of draconian budget cuts. She drew attention to both of those problems in her remarks to the state bar association this summer.

With her departure the court has just six justices serving — at least for this week.  Next week, Court of Appeals Judge Bob Hunter, Jr. will temporarily fill the spot vacated by Justice Martin.

Six is a tough number for parties awaiting a decision from the state’s highest court. If the justices are split three to three on an issue, then no decision follows. Rather, the decision of the court below stands.

And while the interim ascension of Judge Hunter will make seven, for all practical purposes nothing will change, as he’ll have to recuse himself from ruling in cases on which he sat in the Court of Appeals or in which he hasn’t participated while on the Supreme Court.

That includes the 15 or so cases argued this past year for which a decision is still pending.

And among those are some of the weightiest and most controversial issues facing the court this term: redistricting and the Racial Justice Act.

In those cases, with this composition on the court, it’s at least possible that with six, you get nothing.

Uncategorized

NC House votes to repeal Racial Justice Act (video)

Members of the state House gave final approval Wednesday to Senator Thom Goolsby’s bill repealing the Racial Justice Act. Democrats argued that the legislation was still needed because of racial bias in the judicial system.

Republicans rejected appeals to amend the bill, which passed third reading 77-39.

If the Senate approves the changes made by the House, the legislation goes to Governor McCrory’s desk.

To watch a portion of the debate click below:

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Uncategorized

Advocates blast repeal of Racial Justice Act

The good folks at the ACLU-NC issued this statement late yesterday regarding the House’s passage of SB 306 – the bill to repeal the Racial Justice Act:

“The Racial Justice Act has made it possible to shine a light on widespread and indisputable evidence of racial bias in North Carolina’s death penalty system that needs to be addressed,” said ACLU-NC Policy Director Sarah Preston. “It would be beyond tragic if North Carolina turns its back on that evidence and haphazardly rushes to restart executions, knowing full well that our capital punishment process is plagued by racial bias and other flaws that might very well lead to the execution of innocent people. Even those who support the death penalty should agree that capital sentences must be handed down impartially and with respect for due process, yet this bill makes it harder, if not impossible, to achieve that goal.”

In the first case ever tried under the RJA, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks commuted the sentence of death-row prisoner Marcus Robinson to life in prison without the possibility of parole after finding that the defendant “introduced a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina. The evidence, largely unrebutted by the state, requires relief in his case and should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in capital jury selection proceedings in the future.”

The ACLU of North Carolina is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the guarantees of individual liberty found in the United States and North Carolina Constitutions and related federal and state civil rights laws. With more than 11,000 members and supporters throughout the state and an office located in Raleigh, the organization achieves its mission through advocacy, public education, community outreach, and when necessary, litigation.

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