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Robinson v. Thomas

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 27, 2017

MARCUS REYMOND ROBINSON, Petitioner - Appellant,
v.
EDWARD THOMAS, Warden of Central Prison, Raleigh, North Carolina, Respondent - Appellee. TILMON C. GOLPHIN, Petitioner - Appellant,
v.
EDWARD THOMAS, Warden of Central Prison, Raleigh, North Carolina, Respondent - Appellee.

          Argued: January 25, 2017

         Appeals from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, at Raleigh. James C. Dever III, Chief District Judge; Terrence W. Boyle, District Judge. (5:16-hc-02028-D; 5:16-hc-02029-BO)

         ARGUED:

          David Weiss, CENTER FOR DEATH PENALTY LITIGATION, Durham, North Carolina, for Appellants.

          Danielle Marquis Elder, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

         ON BRIEF:

          Donald H. Beskind, DUKE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW, Durham, North Carolina, for Appellant Marcus Reymond Robinson.

          Kenneth J. Rose, CENTER FOR DEATH PENALTY LITIGATION, Durham, North Carolina; Jay H. Ferguson, THOMAS, FERGUSON & MULLINS, LLP, Durham, North Carolina, for Appellant Tilmon C. Golphin.

          Roy Cooper, Attorney General of North Carolina, Jonathan P. Babb, Special Deputy Attorney General, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.

          Before KING, AGEE, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.

          AGEE, Circuit Judge:

         After being sentenced to death upon first-degree murder convictions, Marcus Robinson and Tilmon Golphin (collectively, "Petitioners") sought post-conviction relief in state court pursuant to North Carolina's Racial Justice Act ("RJA"), N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 15A-2010 to 2012 (2009) (repealed 2013). Following separate evidentiary hearings, the North Carolina trial court awarded relief under the RJA, reducing their death sentences to life imprisonment. The State of North Carolina ("the State") appealed, and the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated and remanded their cases to the state trial court for additional RJA proceedings. Petitioners then brought separate actions in federal district court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241, each maintaining that a second RJA proceeding would violate their rights under the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The district court abstained from exercising federal jurisdiction pursuant to Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), under the precept that a federal court "should not act to restrain a [state] criminal prosecution, when the moving party has an adequate remedy at law and will not suffer irreparable injury if denied equitable relief." Id. at 43-44. As an alternate basis for its judgment, the district court held that Petitioners had also failed to exhaust their state remedies. For the reasons that follow, we affirm the district court's decision to abstain from intervening in Petitioners' ongoing state court proceedings under Younger.

         I.

         A.

         Enacted in August 2009, the RJA redefined eligibility for the death penalty in North Carolina, providing that no person whose judgment was sought or obtained on the basis of race could be sentenced to death, and establishing a procedure for previously sentenced capital defendants to challenge their death sentences. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-2010 (2009). For such post-conviction challenges, the RJA authorized state trial courts to hold evidentiary hearings and to make factual findings as to whether race was a significant factor in leading to a death sentence. Id. § 15A-2012(a). For defendants who established entitlement to post-conviction relief under the RJA, the statute mandated "that the death sentence imposed by the judgment shall be vacated and the defendant resentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole." Id. § 15A-2012(a)(3).

         On July 2, 2012, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted amendments to the RJA, but preserved its retroactive application to all death row inmates, as well as the provision that a successful claim would result in vacatur of the death sentence and imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment with no mechanism for appeal of that sentence. See 2012 N.C. Sess. Laws 471, § 3(g).

         The next year, the North Carolina General Assembly repealed the RJA effective June 19, 2013. See 2013 N.C. Sess. Laws 368, § 5(a). The repeal statute provided that it applied to all pending RJA motions filed prior to the effective date of the repeal, and that all such motions were void. Id. § 5(d). In addition, the repeal statute also provided that it applied to litigants who obtained relief under the RJA, but whose relief could be vacated on appeal:

This section does not apply to a court order resentencing a petitioner to life imprisonment without parole pursuant to the provisions of Article 101 of Chapter 15A of the General Statutes prior to the effective date of this act if the order is affirmed upon appellate review and becomes a final Order issued by a court of competent jurisdiction. This section is applicable in any case where a court resentenced a petitioner to life imprisonment without parole pursuant to the provisions of Article 101 of Chapter 15A of the General Statutes prior to the effective date of this act, and the Order is vacated upon appellate review by a court of competent jurisdiction.

Id. (emphasis added).

         B.

         The state court proceedings for each petitioner are ongoing and present a complex web of procedural history. We include such detail here as necessary to lend context to our decision.

         1.

         In 1994, Robinson was convicted after a jury trial of first-degree murder for the killing of Erik Tornblom, a 17-year-old rising senior in high school. Robinson and an accomplice shot Tornblom in the face with a shotgun and then stole his car and $27. The jury found two aggravating circumstances existed that were sufficient to impose the death penalty and recommended the death sentence. The trial court imposed that sentence on August 4, 1994. Robinson appealed both his conviction and sentence, but those appeals were unsuccessful. See generally State v. Robinson, 463 S.E.2d 218 ( N.C. 1995).

         Robinson's requests for state, see generally State v. Robinson, 539 S.E.2d 646 ( N.C. 1999) (denying certiorari review of state trial court's denial of post-conviction motion for appropriate relief), and federal, see generally Robinson v. Polk, 438 F.3d 350 (4th Cir. 2006) (affirming the district court's denial of a petition for the writ of habeas corpus), post-conviction relief also failed.

         In 2010, Robinson sought post-conviction relief under the RJA in the state trial court. Robinson's motion alleged that race was a factor in the prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty and the exercise of peremptory strikes, as well as the jury's decision to impose the death penalty. After a two-week evidentiary hearing, the state trial court found that racial disparities impacted Robinson's death sentence and determined that the RJA standards were satisfied so that Robinson was ineligible for the death penalty and entitled to a ...


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