North Carolina Supreme Court to Reconsider Death Sentences for Three Inmates of Color

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North Carolina's Supreme Court has agreed to re-evaluate the cases of three inmates of color to decide whether they should remain on death row, or have their sentences commuted to a lesser punishment of life without parole, in a case that has once more raised the issue of persistent racial bias in North Carolina's history of sentencing black defendants.

In 2009, when the Democrats controlled both houses of North Carolina's legislature, the state passed the Racial Justice Act. The bill allowed North Carolina's inmates to fight death penalty sentences where they could prove that "race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the sentence of the death."

The first four inmates to use the short-lived act to avoid a death sentence were Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Timothy Golphin. In 2012, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks supported their claims and found significant evidence that their previous trials had been tainted with the "persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina."

When the law was repealed in 2013, though, a new judge, Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour, rejected their claims of bias and sentenced them back to death row.

The North Carolina Supreme Court is going to hear the cases of three of the four inmates—Robinson, Augustine, Walters—and will decide whether to overturn Spainhour's decision that sentenced them back to death row. (Golpin's case has not yet been accepted by the Supreme Court.)

Extreme and persistent racial disparity is apparent in North Carolina's death row. Currently, there are 143 people on death row, the majority of whom (53 percent) are black. Only 22.2 percent of North Carolina's general population is black.