The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Friday that three death row inmates will have their sentences reduced to life in prison through the state's now-defunct Racial Justice Act.
The 2009 law allowed death row inmates to go through an appeals process to receive life without parole if they could prove racial bias was the reason or a significant factor in their original death sentence. North Carolina Republican state lawmakers amended the law in 2012 and then repealed it a year later.
The state Supreme Court decided in June that the repeal could not be applied retroactively, which paved the way for more than 100 prisoners awaiting execution to continue to pursue the reduced sentences they initially sought when the RJA was in effect.
The American Civil Liberties Union represented Christina Walters, Tilmon Golphin and Quintel Augustine in the original RJA hearings in Cumberland County. It also argued on behalf of Walters as the case rose to the Supreme Court.
“The ACLU is thrilled that the North Carolina Supreme Court has ordered that our client Christina Walters be removed from death row," said a statement from attorney Henderson Hill.
“The powerful evidence of racial bias presented in her case shows not just that her death sentence was wrong, but why it is long past time for America to abandon the death penalty," Hill said. "The legacy of death penalty in America is one of racial terror. Its racist application continues to deepen the wounds of inequality and normalize extreme sentencing practices that have no place in a just society.”
Walters, who led a Fayetteville street gang, was convicted of the 1998 murders of 18-year-old Tracy Lambert and 21-year-old Susan Moore and the attempted murder of Debra Cheeseborough.
Augustine was convicted of killing Fayetteville police Officer Roy Turner Jr. in November 2001.
Golphin killed N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Ed Lowry and Cumberland County sheriff’s Deputy David Hathcock during a traffic stop in September 1997.
Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks in 2012 cited a “wealth of evidence” of racially biased jury selection in all three cases. Weeks made a similar statement about death row inmate Marcus Robinson. Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled that Robinson could serve life without parole.
In 2012, Robinson became the first death row inmate to successfully use North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act to receive a lesser sentence. His death sentence for the killing of 17-year-old Erick Tornblom had been reinstated after the law was nullified, but was reduced once again in August following the court's decision.