LUMBERTON — Five inmates convicted of murder in Robeson County may be able to challenge the trials that landed them on death row.
The five inmates, along with about 145 others in the state, previously claimed racial discrimination influenced their trials and, under the Racial Justice Act, filed motions to have their death penalities commuted to life sentences without parole.
According to District Attorney Johnson Britt, those motions have been pending, but hearings currently taking place in Cumberland County could breathe new life into the long-decided cases.
“If they prove that they are entitled to relief under the Racial Justice Act, that means their death sentences are vacated and they are re-sentenced to life without parole,” Britt said.
North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006 because of lawsuits regarding the lethal drugs used and the Racial Justice Act.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009. Three years later, the types of evidence and statistics that could be used to show racism was involved were narrowed. Most of the pending Racial Justice Act motions claim the jury selection process was discriminatory, meaning jurors were removed or selected based on race, Britt said.
“You’re talking about cases that are almost 30 years old if not 30 years old,” Britt said. “These cases just never end. Nobody has been executed in the state because of these Racial Justice Act motions.”
Henry McCollum, 50, was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old Red Springs girl, Sabrina Buie, in September 1983. McCollum was tried a second time in Cumberland County and has been on death row since the mid-1980s.
Daniel Garner, 49, is facing death for the murder of two people at a motel in November 1988. Additionally, he is serving a life sentence for a murder and armed robbery at a convenience store and another sentence for attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and attempted robbery in a Cumberland County case.
Robbie Locklear, 41, was sentenced to death for murdering his stepfather, Jay Taylor, in January 1994. Locklear has served time in prison for stabbing a quadriplegic in the head with a knife.
Daniel Cummings, 58, received the death penalty for an armed robbery and murder in Brunswick County that happened in April 1994, and for beating to death 80-year-old Lena Hales of Red Springs.
Jerry Cummings, 74, was sentenced to death in 1997 for murdering his next-door neighbor in Maxton in August 1986 during a dispute about a dog. Cummings also pled guilty to a 1966 murder. He was sentenced to life in prison and later put on parole.
No hearings have been scheduled for the Robeson County cases, and according to Britt, they may not be for a while.
Currently, four cases in Cumberland County are the only ones in the state being argued after a state attorney recently accused former Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks of misusing the law. If the Supreme Court decides the Racial Justice Act was incorrectly used, those who have had their sentences reduced will find themselves back on death row.
Weeks reduced the sentences of Marcus Reymond Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters and Tilmon Golphin, saying racial discrimination tainted jury selection in those cases.
The Supreme Court is expected to take months to decide the Cumberland County cases.
“We have no idea when the Supreme Court will rule in the Cumberland County cases, or how they will rule. Once they announce, it’s going to be a matter of everybody getting the opinion, reading it and deciding how to apply it,” Britt said.
From there, each inmate’s case will have to be reviewed individually to see how their claims fare under the Supreme Court’s opinion. Judges will have to determine if racism influenced jury selection in the trial, and if the final jury was representative of the county’s population — not simply diverse.
For Britt, an inmate whose trial was found to be influenced by racism should go back on the stand.
“Legally, the logical argument would be that if the jury selection process is tainted, the remedy wouldn’t be life without parole, it would be a new trial,” he said.
In the meantime, fewer capital murder cases are tried, fewer death sentences are handed down and the threat of execution becomes more distant for inmates on death row.
“Ultimately, the issue really becomes do we have a death penalty in North Carolina or don’t we? When we have someone who has been sentenced to die go through the court process, go through the appeals process … does the death penalty serve a purpose?” Britt said.