NC's highest court rules racial justice cases should be heard

Posted June 5, 2020 2:42 p.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2020 2:48 p.m. EDT

— In a pair of rulings Friday, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that death row inmates who had appealed their sentences under the state's Racial Justice Act should still get a hearing despite that law's repeal.

The rulings address two specific cases, those of Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur. They were among 130 inmates who had RJA appeals pending when state lawmakers repealed the Racial Justice Act in 2013.

In 2009, after several high-profile cases in which black men were proven to be wrongly convicted, the Democratic-led legislature passed the Racial Justice Act, which allowed death row inmates to seek to have their sentences commuted to life without parole if they could prove that racial bias may have tainted their trials.

In 2013, after the legislature changed to a Republican majority, the law was repealed, and the statute included a provision dismissing the pending cases. Burke and Ramseur appealed, and the court agreed that inmates with pending cases at the time of the repeal are entitled under the state constitution to present their case to the courts.

Both Ramseur and Burke were convicted by all-white juries in Iredell County.

Justice Anita Earls, writing for the Democratic majority, wrote, “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.”

Four other RJA cases remain before the court. Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters, and Tilmon Golphin initially won their RJA cases, but all four were overturned on appeal.

Death penalty opponents called the decision "momentous."

“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," said Duke Law professor Don Beskind, an attorney who took part in the cases. "Even our most conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices, most recently Justice Kavanaugh, have said that race discrimination in jury selection is a serious long-standing problem that courts must address.”

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