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N.C. Supreme Court hears arguments in cases influenced by Racial Justice Act

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North Carolina's Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Monday morning in two separate murder cases that may shake up the entire state's criminal justice system. The cases focus on four death sentences which were commuted to life in prison after the institution of the state's controversial Racial Justice Act. This morning, North Carolina's high court will meet to determine if these prisoners' life sentences will be allowed to stand, or if they'll be forced back onto death row.

First, here's a little background on the Racial Justice Act, which was repealed last June. The RJA was initially instituted to help combat what was perceived as institutional racism in North Carolina. Essentially, minorities felt that they were receiving unfair verdicts based not on the stature of their crime but on the color of their skin. In fighting this injustice, the state of North Carolina provided criminals the opportunity to appeal any verdict if they felt that their punishment was delivered based on their race.

As you can imagine, the response to this loophole was overwhelming. Death row inmates across the board attempted to file appeals based on the legislation. Certainly, the vague nature of the statute must have made those appeals fairly easy to rationalize. Of the 153 inmates currently on death row in North Carolina, the vast majority currently have cases pending that claim racial bias was a factor in their verdict.

Last June, Republican governor Pat McCrory repealed the Racial Justice Act. He claimed that the well-meaning Act created a means to subvert justice, not reinforce it. At the time, he said, "Nearly every person on death row, regardless of race, has appealed their death sentence under the Racial Justice Act. The state's district attorneys are nearly unanimous in their bipartisan conclusion that the Racial Justice Act created a judicial loophole to avoid the death penalty and not a path to justice."

Before the law was turned over, however, it helped commute the sentences of four convicted murderers. Marcus Robinson, along with another man, Roderick Williams Jr., shot and killed 17-year-old Erik Tornblom with a sawed-off shotgun. After getting a ride home with the teenager, the two men reportedly forced Tornblom to drive out into a field before killing him. Tilmon Golphin and his brother Kevin, who is currently serving a life sentence, were convicted of killing a North Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper, Ed Lowry, and a Cumberland County sheriff's deputy during a traffic stop in 1997. Quintel Augustine was convicted of killing Fayetteville police Officer Roy Turner Jr. in November 2001. Christina Walters was the leader of some North Carolina crips who killed two people at random as part of a gang initiation.

If the state Supreme Court justices determine that the verdicts in these inmates' cases were not, as they claim, influenced by racial bias, then they'll be back in line for the death penalty. Even more, the verdict rendered by the justices today will ripple through the entire North Carolina justice system, impacting scores of pending cases. The state of North Carolina has not executed a criminal since 2006, due to ongoing litigation.

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