Argued: January 25, 2017
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.
Weiss, CENTER FOR DEATH PENALTY LITIGATION, Durham, North
Carolina, for Appellants.
Danielle Marquis Elder, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE,
Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.
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.
Cooper, Attorney General of North Carolina, Jonathan P. Babb,
Special Deputy Attorney General, NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF
JUSTICE, Raleigh, North Carolina, for Appellee.
KING, AGEE, and FLOYD, Circuit Judges.
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 §§ 15A-2010 to 2012 (2009) (repealed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.
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. §
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).
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).
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.
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).
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.
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 ...