July 24, 2020

In Landmark Decision, North Carolina Supreme Court Strikes Down Retroactive Application of Racial Justice Act Repeal

In June 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of both Mr. Burke and Mr. Ramseur.

In June 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of both Mr. Burke and Mr. Ramseur.

In 2009, North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act (RJA), a law allowing death row prisoners relief from their sentence if they could prove that racial discrimination played a significant role during their trial, including in the jury selection process. The law was inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious McCleskey v. Kemp decision, which concluded that statistical data showing racial discrimination did not constitute substantial evidence to overturn a death sentence under the U.S. Constitution. Under the North Carolina law, however, prisoners could marshal statistical evidence to prove that racial bias played a significant role during their trial. Evidence of racial bias could be presented in any of three categories:

  • evidence that death sentences were more frequently sought or imposed on members of a particular race;
  • evidence that the death penalty was more frequently sought or imposed for crimes with victims of a particular race; or
  • evidence that race played a significant role in the jury selection process through preemptory strikes.

Each category standing alone was sufficient to rise to an RJA violation, and proof that racial bias had affected the petitioner’s particular case was not required. A prisoner with a successful RJA claim would automatically be resentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The RJA applied retroactively, so defendants sentenced to death prior to its passage could bring claims within one year of its effective date.

In 2012, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks overturned the death sentences of Tilmon Golphin, Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Marcus Robinson under the RJA. However, in 2013, the newly Republican-dominated North Carolina legislature repealed the RJA and made the repeal retroactive. In 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated all four prisoners’ new sentences, holding that the trial court abused its discretion in overturning the sentences since the State did not have enough time to prepare. The North Carolina Supreme Court remanded the four cases for reconsideration. On remand, the trial court then dismissed the cases, citing the RJA’s repeal.

In 2019, the four resentenced prisoners, as well as two prisoners whose cases had been dismissed without hearings, Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, made their way up to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Both Mr. Burke and Mr. Ramseur had been tried before all-white Iredell County juries. Mr. Burke’s prosecutor called him a “big black bull” during closing arguments. Both men attempted to seek relief under the RJA but never had the chance to present evidence because the issue became moot after the RJA was repealed.

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mr. Burke and Mr. Ramseur on June 5, 2020. The opinion, written by Justice Anita Earls, held that retroactive application of the RJA repeal amounted to an unconstitutional ex post facto law that changed the punishment for a crime that had already been committed. Justice Earls further noted that racial bias in criminal proceedings “undermines the integrity of our judicial system and extends to society as a whole.” The decision is a victory for over 100 people who applied for relief and were ultimately denied hearings after the RJA’s repeal in 2013. The four remaining cases remain pending at the North Carolina Supreme Court; meanwhile, Mr. Burke’s and Mr. Ramseur’s cases have been remanded to the trial courts for further proceedings.