FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Hearings began Monday to determine whether three people convicted of some of North Carolina's most notorious killings can be taken off death row under the Racial Justice Act.
The inmates want their death sentences lessened to life in prison under the act, which allows appeals if it can be proved that racial bias was a factor in their sentencing.
The inmates are Tilmon Golphin, a 34-year-old black man; Quintel Augustine, a 34-year-old black man; and Christina Walters, a 33-year-old American Indian woman.
Golphin killed a state trooper and a sheriff's deputy, and Augustine murdered a police officer. Walters killed two women in a gang-initiation ritual.
In opening statements Monday, defense attorneys told Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks that race was a significant factor in jury selection.
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.
Regardless of the revised Racial Justice Act, the statistics are "still powerful, still persuasive (and) still overwhelming," said defense attorney James Ferguson. "We don't have statistics alone. We have history. We have anecdotes. We have the record of the trial. We have the showing of the implicit bias."
In Augustine's case, defense lawyers contended that black potential jurors were struck four times more than non-blacks, according to statistics compiled by Michigan State law professor Barbara O'Brien.
Prosecutor Rob Thompson argued that O'Brien never interviewed any of the judges or prosecutors to question what non-racial factors might have been involved in dismissing jurors.
"What O'Brien did with this study is (compared to) listening to a radio (broadcast) of the game and telling the refs whether they're doing a good enough job. She is that far removed from the facts of the courtroom," Thompson said.
Victims' family members were also present for the hearings Monday, including Dixie Davis, whose husband Ed Lowery was shot to death by Golphin during a traffic stop in 1997.
"This is a slap in the face to all law enforcement officers everywhere who put on the uniform every day, because what's the use? You're never going to get a perfect jury," she said.
This week's hearing marks the second test of the state's controversial law that was heavily revised this summer by the legislature. Earlier this year, Marcus Reymond Robinson became the first prisoner removed from death row under the law.