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N.C. Judge Commutes Sentences of Cop Killers

In a tension-filled Cumberland County courtroom, Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks made the announcement that five families had dreaded and three families prayed for.

He commuted the death sentences of convicted murderers Tilmon Golphin, Christina S. "Queen" Walters and Quintel Augustine to life in prison without parole under terms of the N.C. Racial Justice Act.

Weeks found that the prosecutors at their trials years ago were racially biased when deciding to strike black citizens from serving on the juries.

Golphin and Augustine had been sentenced to death for the murders of three law enforcement officers, a fact that prompted dozens of uniformed lawmen to fill the courtroom to hear Weeks' ruling. Walters had killed two women.

"Their crimes repel every one of us in this courtroom, but their crimes are not at issue in these proceedings," Weeks said in announcing his ruling Thursday morning. "What is at issue in these cases is the process by which they were sentenced to death. The question is whether their sentences of death were fairly imposed under the law."

Weeks concluded that they were not.

He cited statistics that indicated blacks were far more frequently struck from the juries than whites and handwritten notes from the prosecutors' files that noted the race of the potential jurors. He found that after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial bias in jury selection is unconstitutional, prosecutors were trained in ways to circumvent that ruling instead of in methods to eliminate bias in their work.

As Weeks read a summary of his findings, some in the courtroom steeled themselves for a seemingly inevitable outburst from the victims' relatives. About 17 minutes into the hearing, Al Lowry, the brother of slain Highway Patrol Trooper Ed Lowry, rose to his feet.

Golphin shot Ed Lowry and Cumberland County Sheriff's Deputy David Hathcock during a traffic stop in 1997. Golphin is black; the lawmen were white.

Al Lowry yelled an expletive at the judge that described his opinion of the ruling.

"Judge, you had your mind made up the first day," Lowry said.

And to Golphin, he shouted that the killer would have to "deal with me" if Golphin ever got out of prison.

Weeks ordered Lowry out of the courtroom.

About 120 people filled the courtroom in addition to prison security officers guarding the defendants. About 65 to 70 uniformed lawmen attended, including the Highway Patrol's commander, Col. Michael Gilchrist; Cumberland County Sheriff Moose Butler; and Fayetteville's interim police chief, Katherine Bryant.

After Weeks finished announcing his findings, most of the lawmen stood and filed out of the courtroom.

Among the defendants' relatives and lawyers were tearful hugs.

"We're happy, very happy," said Corneilus Robinson, Augustine's brother.

Augustine, who is black, was convicted of the November 2001 murder of Fayetteville Police Officer Roy Turner, who also was black. Turner was shot when getting out of his car during a patrol of an area known for drug dealing.

Augustine has maintained his factual innocence. His family hopes he will get a new trial, Robinson said.

Walters was crying as she left the courtroom, said one of her lawyers, Cassandra Stubbs. Walters, a Lumbee Indian, led a mixed-race gang that shot and killed two white women and critically injured a black woman during a gang-initiation ritual in 1998.

Stubbs said the evidence of racism was overwhelming.

"We heard from words and the deeds of the prosecutors themselves in this case just how much race affected their decision-making process," she said.

Multiple appeals

Walters, Augustine and Golphin are the second, third and fourth people to win Racial Justice Act claims since the state legislature adopted the law in 2009. The first was Marcus Reymond Robinson of Fayetteville; Weeks commuted his sentence in April.

Another 144 death row defendants have Racial Justice Act claims pending. Eight condemned men are not attempting to use the law.

The law, which the Republican-controlled legislature revised this year to make it harder for defendants to win claims, allows condemned inmates of any race to advance a claim that institutional racism led to their death sentences.

In light of the law, studies have found that people who kill whites are more likely to be sentenced to death than those who kill nonwhites. And, studies have shown, blacks who favor the death penalty are blocked by prosecutors from serving on capital juries far more often than whites.

Prosecutors contend that the studies are flawed. The aggregate results of the studies ignore that each case, and each decision to strike a juror, is unique, they argue.

Weeks said his ruling falls under terms of both the 2009 version of the Racial Justice Act and this year's revision.

Cumberland County Assistant District Attorney Rob Thompson said the state will appeal the ruling.

District Attorney Billy West said he had no further comment. Others in law enforcement, however, did.

"I am saddened and disappointed by Judge Weeks' ruling today," said Cal Colyer, a retired Cumberland County assistant district attorney who was the county's lead homicide prosecutor for years. In a statement, Colyer said Weeks' finding that he discriminated is wrong.

Bryant, the Fayetteville police chief, said: "Our hearts go out to the families of the victims who have had to once again relive the devastating loss of their loved ones."

And Gilchrist, the head of the Highway Patrol, said: "I am certainly disappointed that the sentence for a convicted murderer of two law enforcement officers has been set aside and that the jury's sentence will not be carried out. Law enforcement officers don't make the laws. We support them and enforce them. It's not our place to be critical of them. It is important that we support the law enforcement officers who protect us and support their families as well, and that's what we are doing."

Copyright 2012 - The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service