LAURINBURG — The outcome of the case currently before the N.C. Supreme Court, of whether or not commuting the death row sentences of four convicted murderers to life in prison under the Racial Justice Act was an error, may affect an appeal made by Timmy Grooms, who in 1994 killed a 22-year-old Laurel Hill woman.
Enacted in 2009 and repealed last year, the Racial Justice Act allowed death row inmates to appeal their sentences by proving that their trial was influenced by racism. While the act was still in place, nearly all of North Carolina’s 153 death row inmates appealed to have their sentences reviewed.
Grooms, 51, has been on death row since 1998, when he was convicted of the murder of 22-year-old Krista Kay Godwin. Godwin was abducted from her home on the evening of Feb. 14, 1994. Her body was found five days later in a wooded area off of U.S. 74 near St. John’s Church Road. She had been stabbed multiple times and both of her hands were severed.
Grooms was convicted of first-degree murder, rape, robbery, and kidnapping and sentenced to death. Claiming to be Native American, he is the only death row inmate convicted in a Scotland County case who has applied for a commuted sentence under the Racial Justice Act.
“It was a very heinous killing and I feel very sorry for (Godwin’s) family that they have been forced to relive this event and continue to be traumatized by his actions,” said District Attorney Kristy Newton.
According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Grooms has allegedly committed six infractions while in central prison, including threatening to harm or injure staff, substance possession, using profane language and disobeying orders. He has convictions dating back to 1979, including first-degree rape in 1980.
Currently the cases of four people convicted of capital crimes in Cumberland County are under review by the state’s highest court to determine if Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks erred in commuting their sentences.
The state has argued that Weeks’ decision in the case of Marcus Robinson, sentenced to death for the 1991 killing of 17-year-old Erik Tornblum, did not take the facts of Robinson’s trial into account. Rather, Weeks ruled based upon statistical evidence indicating racism on the part of Cumberland County prosecutors, and the other three cases were informed by that decision.
Though Grooms’ appeal, along with more than 100 others, was filed prior to the abolition of the Racial Justice Act, its future may hinge on whether or not the Supreme Court decides to return the four Cumberland County murderers to death row.
It remains to be seen whether or not the Supreme Court’s will make a decision applicable beyond the four individuals in question. According to Newton, the court could also make a blanket ruling, either that all inmates in question be left on death row or that all of their sentences be commuted to life.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 17. Follow her on Twitter @emkaylbg.