FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — A North Carolina judge on Thursday commuted the sentences of three death row inmates to life in prison after finding that race played a factor in jury selection for their cases.
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.
"Judge, you had your mind made up before this ever started," Al Lowry shouted. "Golphin, you'll have me to deal with if you ever get (out)."
Col. Michael Gilchrist, commander of the Highway Patrol, said troopers would try to support the Lowery family, despite the ruling.
"I am certainly disappointed that the sentence for a convicted murderer of two law enforcement officers has been set aside and that the jury's sentence will not be carried out," Gilchrist said in a statement. "Law enforcement officers don't make the laws – we support them and enforce them. It's not our place to be critical of them."
In addition to Ed Lowry, Golphin also killed a Cumberland County deputy.
Augustine was convicted of murdering a Fayetteville police officer in 2001, while Walters was found guilty of kidnapping three girls and killing two of them in 1998 in a gang-initiation ritual.
After the hearing, a dejected Al Lowry said North Carolina's justice system is "totally, totally broken."
"People in this state think the RJA is a good thing, (but) it's nothing but to back-door (end of) the death penalty," he said. "People need to wake up."
Earlier this year, Weeks commuted the death sentence of another inmate, Marcus Robinson, in the first test of the Racial Justice Act.
The landmark 2009 law allowed death row prisoners to use statistics to show that racial bias influenced their sentences, but the Republican-led General Assembly overrode Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto this summer to roll back much of the law. Now, statistics alone aren't enough to have a death sentence commuted, and the inmate must also introduce evidence pertinent to his or her case.
Weeks said he considered both the original and revised versions of the law in reaching his rulings and still found evidence of bias using the higher standard.
“The evidence that our capital punishment system is infected by racial bias has become too great to deny,” Kenneth Rose, senior staff attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation and one of the lawyers representing the three defendants, said in a statement. “Because some of our state lawmakers don’t want to confront this reality, we will be fighting these cases for years to come. We will not rest until we are assured that race plays no role in North Carolina’s death penalty.”
Still, the families of victims said life in prison isn't enough to atone for the violent loss of their loved ones.
"We have been promised for 15 years that they would die," said Jim Davis, Ed Lowry's brother-in-law. "It hasn't happened. It isn't going to happen – not by the state's hand."
Prosecutors said they plan to appeal the rulings.