N.C. Supreme Court Preserves RJA, Ensures Closer Scrutiny For Death Penalty System

June 11, 2020   |   David Weiss

As historic protests against endemic racism in the criminal punishment system sweep the country, the N.C. Supreme Court issued three important decisions addressing racial bias in criminal cases in meaningful and much-needed ways. In each of the cases decided on Friday, June 5, NCAJ filed amicus briefs urging the court to fully enforce the constitutional right to equal treatment under the law.

In recent years, statistical studies of North Carolina’s criminal system have borne out the justifiable anger and anguish over the mistreatment of black citizens that is currently playing out in demonstrations across the nation. A commission established by former N.C. Chief Justice Martin found in 2017 that North Carolinians widely believe our court system treats people differently based on race. Meanwhile, numerous studies have found that North Carolina’s criminal system is riven with discrimination. For example, decisions about which citizens are allowed serve on capital and non-capital juries are made on the basis of race, as are decisions about which cases are punished with the death penalty.

The first important decision the court handed down on June 5 was State v. Ramseur, No. 388A10, along with its companion case, State v. Burke, No. 181A93-4. Ramseur and Burke involved a state law known as the Racial Justice Act, or RJA, which was passed in 2009 to ensure the state is not permitted to operate a racially biased death penalty system. In 2012, two extensive hearings were held in Cumberland County under the RJA, and they uncovered undeniable evidence of race discrimination throughout North Carolina death penalty cases. Nonetheless, in 2013, a newly-elected legislature repealed the RJA.

In Ramseur, the court addressed whether the retroactive repeal of the RJA, and its attempt to void claims previously filed under the law, was constitutional. The court found it was not, holding that it violated the prohibition on ex post facto laws that make the punishment for crimes more severe. Thus, the court held, once the RJA was enacted, the legislature could not retroactively increase the potential punishment by repealing the RJA’s mechanism for reducing death sentences to life imprisonment when there is evidence of racial bias.

The court’s decision in Ramseur is historic because it means that RJA claims — and their evidence of widespread discrimination in capital cases — will now be fully addressed in court proceedings. The court’s preservation of the RJA ensures that a North Carolina death penalty system tainted by racial bias will now come under careful judicial scrutiny.

Ramseur is also important because it recognized explicitly that the problem of race discrimination in North Carolina death penalty cases has persisted for years, and until the passage of the RJA, had gone unaddressed. The court explained that the RJA “reflects ongoing concerns with the difficulty of proving covert racial discrimination, particularly in capital sentencing decisions.” The court acknowledged that this problem must be confronted because “the harm from racial discrimination in criminal cases is not limited to an individual defendant, but rather it undermines the integrity of our judicial system and extends to society as a whole.” Finally, the court recognized that the RJA provides “mechanisms for addressing racial discrimination in the criminal justice system” that are more “robust” than what the law previously allowed.

NCAJ member and Duke Law professor Don Beskind, who is also counsel in one of the RJA cases, remarked that the Ramseur decision marked “a good day for racial justice in North Carolina.” “The death penalty,” Beskind explained, “is the most extreme result in a criminal justice system that has brutalized black Americans for generations. The Supreme Court’s focus on the system’s disparate treatment of African Americans marks, I hope, the beginning of a new era for equal justice under the law in North Carolina.”

In a third case decided on Friday, State v. Bennett, No. 406PA18, the court made clear that objections to race-based peremptory challenges should be taken seriously and thoroughly explored. The court wrote that the prima facie showing requires only “an inference of discriminatory purpose,” and “a court should not attempt to determine whether a prosecutor has actually engaged in” discrimination at that early stage. Thus, in Bennett, the court held there was prima facie evidence of race discrimination, and remanded for a full hearing, because the prosecution had used its only two peremptory strikes to remove two of the five potential black jurors, and there was no “immediately obvious justification” for removing those two jurors.

Bennett comes on the heels of the court’s decision last month in State v. Hobbs, No. 263PA18, which also clarified and strengthened the legal standards for preventing racial bias in jury selection. These opinions, taken together, provide attorneys and lower courts with critical tools for protecting the right of litigants, and the community at large, to juries selected without regard to race.

These three decisions — made in the midst of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s public address on racial injustice, and the governor’s appointment of Associate Justice Anita Earls to co-chair a task force on racial inequity in the criminal system — show that the N.C. Supreme Court is serious about beginning to root out the discrimination that has long been part of our judicial system. NCAJ is proud of the court’s courageous enforcement of civil rights in these decisions, and hopes that it will continue this sorely needed work, as our society reckons with racial divisions that have gone unremedied for far too long.

About the Author

David Weiss