NC Supreme Court revives Racial Justice Act in limited cases

N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls via NC Courts website.

RALEIGH — Associate Justice Anita Earls of the North Carolina Supreme Court wrote a decision, published June 5 and supported by six out of seven justices, that allowed prisoners on death row who had already applied for an appeal under the Racial Justice Act when it was repealed in 2013, to continue their cases.

The decision came in two separate cases, that of death row inmates Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, who each sued the state after their RJA cases were halted. The RJA was passed in 2009 and allowed prisoners to have their sentences reduced from death to life in prison if they could show racial bias played a role.

Earls’ opinion rules that the state cannot retroactively strip them of the right to use the law after the cases had proceeded.

The rulings also potentially stand to revive cases of more than 100 North Carolina prisoners who claim racial bias was the reason or a significant factor for their death sentence. The legal opinion applies to any death-row inmate who sought relief originally while the 2009 law was in place, Earls wrote.

“Here the right is to challenge a sentence of death on the grounds that it was obtained in a proceeding tainted by racial discrimination,” Earls wrote in one of the cases. “Repealing the (Racial Justice Act) took away that right, and the repeal cannot be applied retroactively consistent with this state’s constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws.”

Nearly all of the 150-plus inmates on death row when the 2009 law was in place — including white and black prisoners — filed for reviews under the Racial Justice Act.

Four inmates who initially saw their sentences reduced to life without parole using the legal process now remain on death row with the law’s repeal. They have asked the justices to restore their reductions.

Democrats who led the General Assembly when the Racial Justice Act was approved said the law was needed to address prosecutorial misconduct and efforts by district attorneys over the years to keep black residents off capital-case juries. But Republicans who altered and then repealed the law said it was overbroad, particularly in the use of statewide statistics for racial bias.

Critics of the Racial Justice Act also said it was designed to extend a de facto moratorium on the death penalty. North Carolina currently has 143 prisoners on death row. An execution hasn’t been carried out since 2006, when Samuel Flippen was put to death after being convicted of murdering his 2-year-old stepdaughter.

Many prisoners have been on death row for decades, with the longest current N.C. death row inmate being Wayne Laws, who was sentenced to death Aug. 21, 1985. The latest addition to the list is Mikel Brady, who killed four workers at Pasquotank Correctional Institute in a failed escape attempt and was then sentenced to death Oct. 28, 2019.

Associate Justice Paul Newby, the only registered Republican on the seven-member court, was the sole dissenting vote, saying he believed the decision “cedes significant portions of the people’s authority over death penalty policy to the courts.”

Newby was writing in the case of Ramseur, who was convicted in 2010 of first-degree murder for killing two people during an armed robbery at an Iredell County gas station. He challenged his sentence, pointing out this trial was heard by an all-white jury during a time of racial tensions in the community. Ramseur amended his request for relief when the Racial Justice Act was altered. A judge dismissed his claims after the repeal.

Much of the legal arguments surrounded an 1869 state Supreme Court ruling involving a Confederate soldier protected by a then-repealed amnesty law.

Earls, writing for six of the justices, said the repeal was unconstitutional to Ramseur because it “increases the severity of the standard of punishment attached to the crime of first-degree murder” and deprives him of a way to fight the punishment in court.

“This decision is built on basic fairness,” Don Beskind, a Duke University law professor involved in the litigation, said in a release. “The evidence in these death penalty cases was stark and undeniable. The very least we can do is allow it to be heard in court.”

Newby countered that the Racial Justice Act did not change the punishment for first-degree murder, and that death-row inmates have other methods to seek sentencing relief from the courts.

Earls cited Ramseur in a shorter, separate opinion involving Burke, who was sent to death row in 1993 for what court documents show was the murder of a man who had testified against him in an earlier murder case. Ramseur also was convicted by an all-white jury in Iredell County court, where prosecutors referred to him in closing arguments as a “big black bull,” according to a news release Friday from death penalty opponents.

The office of Attorney General Josh Stein, whose attorneys represented the state in the cases, was reviewing the decisions Friday, a spokesperson said.

Tim Wigginton, a spokesman for the N.C. GOP, released a statement on the ruling saying, “The liberal majorities decision on RJA undermines justice and our democratic system. The court has undemocratically done what Democrats in the legislature have tried for years to do and failed.”

Wigginton also said, “the Democrat majority on the Supreme Court used the Racial Justice Act to essentially end the enforcement of the death penalty in North Carolina.”

Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, held a press conference days earlier, on June 2, in regard to the protests after the death of George Floyd and the resulting calls for improving the justice system surrounding issues of race.

“As the mother of twin sons who are young black men, I know that the calls for change absolutely must be heeded,” Beasley said in her speech. “And while we rely on our political leaders to institute those necessary changes, we must also acknowledge the distinct role that our courts play. As chief justice, it is my responsibility to take ownership of the way our courts administer justice, and acknowledge that we must do better, we must be better.”

NSJ asked N.C. Courts if Beasley’s press conference had any connection with the RJA cases being decided days later, since arguments on the case had concluded August of 2019. N.C. Court communications director Sharon Gladwell said that justices do not comment on decisions of the court. Gladwell did not address the question of timing of the release of the decision.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.