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NC Supreme Court OKs appeals of bias in death row sentencing
Racial Justice Act cases can continue
Published Monday, June 8, 2020 1:00 pm
by Herbert L. White | The Charlotte Post

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled last week that death row inmates who filed appeals under the Racial Justice Act can present evidence of racial bias. The RJA, which became law in 2010, was overturned in 2013.

North Carolina death row inmates who contend their sentences were impacted by race can seek redress in court.

The state Supreme Court on June 5 cleared a path for review of racial discrimination in death penalty cases with a 6-1 decision that Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur were entitled to present evidence that prosecutors willfully excluded African Americans from their juries and that racial bias tainted their trials. The court also ruled death row prisoners who filed claims under the N.C. Racial Justice Act before its repeal in 2013 to present their evidence in court. The case was decided under the state constitution, which can’t be appealed to a federal court.

The court has not yet decided the cases of RJA defendants Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Christina Walters and Tilmon Golphin, who won their cases but were overturned on appeal.

“In light of decades, if not centuries, of mistreatment and brutalization of black citizens at the hands of America’s criminal system, today’s decision to take the death penalty off the table when there is evidence of racial bias is just one small but important step toward achieving the broad-based reform needed in North Carolina, and across the country,” said ACLU attorney Henderson Hill of Charlotte, who represents RJA defendants. “It’s something to celebrate, but also a reminder that we must keep working for justice.”

Last week’s ruling was based on the precedent of State v. Keith, an 1869 case in which the state Supreme Court ruled that a Confederate soldier charged with war crimes couldn’t be prosecuted due to a post-Civil War amnesty law that was later repealed. The death row plaintiffs argued that if the state constitution protects Confederate war criminals, it must also protect their right to present evidence of race discrimination after repeal of the RJA.

Justice Anita Earls, who authored the majority opinion, wrote that “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.”

At oral arguments last August, Burke and Ramseur, who are black, presented evidence their sentences were racially motivated. Both were convicted by all-white juries in Iredell County. Prosecutors at Burke’s trial referred to him during closing arguments as a “big black bull.” Ramseur’s trial included threats of lynching, and the judge and sheriff forced his family to sit in the back of the courtroom behind police tape while the family of the white victim sat in front.

“This decision is built on basic fairness,” said Don Beskind, a Durham attorney and Duke Law professor involved in the litigation. “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. Even our most conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices, most recently Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh, have said that race discrimination in jury selection is a serious long-standing problem that courts must address.”

Burke and Ramseur first presented their evidence shortly after the legislature passed the RJA, which allowed death row inmates to submit claims of racial motivation at trial. Those who could prove their claims would be resentenced to life without parole. In 2013, after the first four RJA defendants won cases, the General Assembly repealed the law with legislation that invalidated pending cases and prevented any court review of evidence of bias.

“This is a momentous decision that sends a clear message: Our state’s highest court will not allow North Carolina to ignore evidence that racism has infected the death penalty,” said Center for Death Penalty Litigation Executive Director Gretchen Engel. “This was also an urgently needed decision as our state and our nation confront a long history of racism. The death penalty is the apex of a criminal legal system that has failed people of color.”                              


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