FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — A North Carolina judge on Thursday commuted the death sentences of three convicted killers, including two who killed law enforcement officers, to life in prison without the possibility of parole after ruling that race played an unjust role in jury selection at their trials.
Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks based his ruling on evidence presented over four weeks of hearings that he says showed prosecutors in each case made a concerted effort to reduce the number of black jurors.
The three who had their sentences commuted were among the most notorious killers on North Carolina's death row. Two had killed law enforcement officers.
Family members of the victims and more than 60 uniformed police officers packed the courtroom. Before Weeks could finish issuing his ruling, the brother of a murdered state trooper stood up and yelled an expletive at the judge.
The Republican-controlled Legislature recently scaled back the state's Racial Justice Act, on which Thursday's ruling was based. Weeks said his ruling applies under both the old and new laws.
He cited evidence that included handwritten notes of prosecutors indicating they worked to get blacks eliminated from the pool of jurors, resulting in panels that were overwhelmingly white.
"This conclusion is based primarily on the words and deeds of the prosecutors involved in these cases," Weeks, who is black, said from the bench. "Despite protestations to the contrary, their words, their deeds, speak volumes. During presentation of evidence, the court finds powerful and persuasive evidence of racial consciousness, race-based decision making in the writings of prosecutors long buried in the case files and brought to light for the first time during this hearing."
The cases involve convicted murderers Christina "Queen" Walters, Tilmon Golphin and Quintel Augustine. Earlier this year, Marcus Reymond Robinson became the first to have his sentence commuted to life without parole under the provisions of the landmark 2009 law.
Walters is a Lumbee Indian. Augustine and Golphin are black.
Walters was the leader of a Fayetteville street gang convicted of killing two women and shooting another during an initiation ritual in 1998.
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. Golphin's younger brother is also serving a life sentence for the homicides.
The surviving family member who had cursed the judge was outraged.
"Judge, you had your mind made up the first day," said Al Lowry, a photo of his brother pinned to his lapel.
He then turned to lock eyes with his brother's killer, who was seated at the defense table.
"Golphin, you'll have me to deal with if you ever get your sorry ass out of here," he yelled.
Lowry was escorted from the court room by bailiffs, but not placed under arrest. As Weeks completed reading his ruling, the law enforcement officers filed out of the courtroom. A woman in civilian clothes yelled that they should all take their badges off and leave them behind, because the justice system would no longer protect the officers from criminals.
"I'm certainly disappointed that these sentences for the convicted murders of three law enforcement officers have been set aside and that the jury's sentence will not be carried out," Col. Michael Gilchrist, commander of the State Highway Patrol, said after leaving the courtroom.
The original Racial Justice Act, passed when Democrats controlled the state Legislature, allowed death row inmates to use statistics to show that racial bias influenced their sentences. After Republicans took control of the Legislature, lawmakers rolled back much of the law, overriding the veto this past summer of Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Lawmakers limited the use of statistics to prove racial bias and legislated that statistics alone are not sufficient to do so. Prisoners now must introduce evidence pertinent to their cases.
Prosecutors indicated they will petition to have Weeks' ruling overturned by the N.C. Court of Appeals.
James E. Ferguson II, a Charlotte civil rights lawyer who was a member of the defense team in the case, said Weeks made his decision based on the evidence.
"It's not surprising there would be a strong emotional reaction to justice being done in this case," Ferguson said. "We understand the emotions the families might have. But the judge said it all in his order when he said that equal justice under the law has not been a reality and what we're trying to do is come to the point where it is a reality. ... What happened here was the Legislature enacted a law, the judge heard evidence and applied that law to it. And it was a just result."
The families of the victims, some crying, others visibly enraged, disagreed. Al Lowry, boarding the elevator to leave with a group of state troopers, said it wasn't fair for one judge to nullify the decision of the jurors who sentenced his brother's murder to die.
"I think Greg Weeks is as biased and as racist as the people that have been convicted," Lowry, who is white, said of the judge. "This was a bunch of crap from day one. I have nothing good to say about the justice system right now, because it's totally, totally broke. ... Just give me the two brothers that killed my brother and let me take justice in my own hands. Because that's where this country needs to go."
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck