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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Race and the death penalty back in the news in NC

The issue of race and capital punishment has been widely studied in my state.

So we know the facts.

In 2009, the state passed the historic Racial Justice Act. Then the law was repealed. Twice. (Google it, please)

Yet, race still impacts the imposition of the death penalty in my state, as well as just about everywhere it has ever been studied.

So this story from my state caught my attention:

A university researcher testified on Tuesday that race influenced prosecutors' decisions to reject black jurors from serving on three of Cumberland County's most notorious murder trials.

Between 1990 and August 2010, the race of potential jurors "was a significant factor" in whether prosecutors struck them from death penalty cases, Michigan State University law professor Barbara O'Brien testified at a Racial Justice Act hearing for the three defendants.

The three defendants, Christina Walters, Quintel Augustine and Tilmon Golphin, are on death row. They are attempting to use the N.C. Racial Justice Act to prove racism was a factor that led to their death sentences.

If they win, their sentences will be converted to life in prison without parole.

Walters killed two women as part of a gang initiation ritual. Golphin killed a state trooper and a Cumberland County sheriff's deputy in a traffic stop, and Augustine was convicted for the murder of a Fayetteville police officer.

This hearing hinges on allegations of racism in the jury selection process.

At a trial, defense lawyers and prosecutors vet potential jurors on whether they will be helpful to their side. Some jurors express obvious biases and can be dismissed outright.

But each side may also reject a limited number of jurors without stating a reason for blocking them. These rejections are peremptory challenges.

O'Brien co-authored a statistical study of North Carolina death penalty cases. It says prosecutors have a pattern of using peremptory challenges to block blacks from serving on the juries of capital murder trials. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that potential jurors may not be struck peremptorily because of their race.

O'Brien testified that race was a significant factor in prosecutors' jury selection decisions statewide, locally and in the three defendants' trials. The results "support an inference of intentional discrimination" on the part of the prosecutors, she said.

Statewide, black jurors were twice as likely to be dismissed, she said. They also were twice as likely to be dismissed in Golphin's trial, she said.

At Walters' trial, blacks were struck 3.6 times as often, O'Brien said, and 3.7 times as often during Augustine's trial.

Prosecutors sometimes seat death-penalty qualified jurors who still express reservations about it.
Statewide, O'Brien said, 9.7 percent of black jurors with death penalty reservations were approved by prosecutors versus 26.4 percent of non-black jurors.

In Cumberland County blacks with reservations about the death penalty were seated by prosecutors 5.9 percent of the time, versus 26.3 percent of the time for non-black jurors with such reservations, O'Brien said.

O'Brien analyzed the jury selection patterns both under the Racial Justice Act of 2009 and a the more restrictive version that lawmakers passed this summer after a convicted murderer from Fayetteville used the 2009 law to get off death row.

There is dispute over which version of the law applies to Walters, Golphin and Augustine, so O'Brien analyzed their cases under both versions of the law. Under both standards, she said, she found racial bias.

During cross-examination, Union County Assistant District Attorney Jonathan Perry questioned O'Brien about her notes, decision-making and her methods in analyzing the data. Perry has a statistics background, so he is assisting the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office with the case.

The hearing was stopped after the electricity failed at 4:10 p.m. Much of the city lost power because of a malfunction at the city's power plant, said Public Works Commission board member Lou Olivera.

In other developments:

The defense lawyers are seeking transcripts of the trials of James Burmeister and Malcolm Wright. Burmeister and Wright were two racist skinheads in the Army who in 1995 went to a poor neighborhood in Fayetteville and killed a black man and woman they found there.

Prosecutors unsuccessfully sought death sentences for Burmeister and Wright. Burmeister died in prison; Wright is serving life without parole.

The District Attorney's Office was looking for the transcripts on Tuesday afternoon.

Augustine wrote a note to his mother, who attended the trial, and lawyer James Ferguson II attempted to deliver it to her. That was a security violation, so Ferguson was stopped.

The incident is to be discussed when the hearing resumes.

So, yes, race is still a problem in the state, in the sense that it continues to impact death penalty practice. So we've got that covered this semester at App State!

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