FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — A North Carolina judge on Thursday commuted the death sentences of three convicted killers 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.
"The court finds powerful and persuasive evidence of racial consciousness, race-based decisionmaking in the writings of prosecutors long buried in the case files and brought to light for the first time during this hearing," Weeks, who is black, said from the bench.