RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) - Four inmates previously removed from and returned to death row are seeking permanent stays of execution.
Advocates for Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, Marcus Robinson, and Christina Walters filed legal briefs with the North Carolina Supreme Court on Monday. All four defendants are on death row following murder convictions in Cumberland County in the 1990s and early 2000s.
North Carolina legislators passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009, which said that a capital defendant could have their sentence reduced to life in prison without parole if there is evidence proving "that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed." (N.C. Gen. Stat. §15A-2010)
A state Superior Court judge ruled in 2012 that Cumberland County prosecutors intentionally dismissed African-American potential jurors in death penalty cases much more frequently than white jurors. Prosecutor notes from jury selection in the Golphin case described potential jurors with terms such as "black wino," "thug," "country boy okay," and "respectable black family."
"Being part of a jury in your community is a badge of citizenship, and so when we discriminate against African-Americans, that really undermines our democracy," said Gretchen Engel, director of the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation.
The judge who heard arguments on behalf of Golphin, Augustine, Robinson, and Walters deemed their cases to be eligible under the Racial Justice Act. They came off of death row. Walters received her GED during her time in the general prison population.
The North Carolina legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013. Two years later, the state Supreme Court vacated the state Superior Court judge's original ruling regarding the four inmates and sent the case back to the Superior Court. The inmates returned to death row.
"Lo and behold we get back into Superior Court, and at that point, the position shifts, and it's well wait a minute, the statute's been repealed, the courthouse door has been shut, and you are out of luck," Engel said.
"It's this happened, and oops, there's a technicality, let's send you back to another level of court. Oops, here's another technicality and now we're going to keep you out of court all together," she said.
"Here we are in a position where these defendants might not be able to ever have those claims really heard by a court, and just simply move forward to execution, and that's not fair, and I think that's why all these groups are up in arms about it."
A coalition of former prosecutors, including former Virginia Attorney General Mark Earley, is part of the civil rights claims in support of the four inmates. The NAACP, National Association of Public Defenders, North Carolina Association of Black Lawyers, North Carolina Council of Churches, and North Carolina Advocates for Justice, and ACLU Capital Punishment Project are also part of the coalition.
The inmates are not arguing their innocence. They are instead protesting the punishment and asking for sentences of life imprisonment without parole.
Tilmon Golphin killed State Trooper Ed Lowry and Cumberland County deputy David Hathcock during a traffic stop on September 23, 1997. Golphin was 19 at the time of the shooting, which also involved his 17-year-old brother Kevin.
The younger sibling had his death sentence changed to a life sentence in 2005 after the United States Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to issue a death sentence to any defendant who was a juvenile at the time of the crime. In 2012, the Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional to automatically issue a life sentence without parole to a juvenile offender. Inmates in such circumstances could become eligible for parole after 25 years imprisonment, which will be 2022 in Kevin Golphin's case.
Quintel Augustine shot and killed Fayetteville police officer Roy Turner, Jr. in 2001.
Marcus Robinson murdered Erik Tornblom on July 21, 1991, after he kidnapped and robbed the 17-year-old. Tornblom, a rising senior at Douglas Byrd High School, was on his way home from work when the 18-year-old Robinson and Roderick Williams asked him for a ride.
Robinson had an execution date set for January 2007, but a Superior Court Judge stopped all executions in North Carolina. The judge ruled that the Council of State must approve changes to execution procedures.
Christina Walters was 20 years old when she led gang initiations which involved the random shootings of young women. Two victims, 18-year-old Tracy Lambert and 21-year-old Susan Moore, died from their injuries. Debra Cheeseborough survived and testified at the trials of Walters and other participants.
Engel said criminals should be punished for their crimes, but pointed to exoneration of some death row inmates who were later found to be innocent as reason to discontinue executions.
"Life without parole is enough. It's a really harsh punishment, and if we make a mistake we can correct it and we know that. Those trials are quicker. The appeals are quicker," she said.
"I'm not sure what the extra benefit we get is, as society, from the death penalty."
A list of all North Carolina inmates currently on death row is available at the North Carolina Department of Public Safety website.