Commentary

The Racial Justice Act (and its history) explained

[Editor’s note: In light of the recent state Supreme Court ruling reinstating the claims made by several Death Row inmates under the now repealed Racial Justice Act, the following examination of the law, its history and the history of some of the litigation surrounding the law should provide a useful explainer/refresher for lay observers.]

The North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), ratified in August 2009, provided that no person shall be subject to or given a sentence of death or shall be executed pursuant to any judgment that was sought or obtained on the basis of race.

The Act was amended in 2012 and repealed in 2013 by the North Carolina General Assembly.

On June 5, 2020 the North Carolina Supreme Court released decisions in State v. Ramseur and State v. Burke holding that the amendment of the RJA, as it relates to the altered evidentiary requirements, and the repeal of the RJA were unconstitutional and in violation of the prohibition against ex post facto laws in the North Carolina and United States Constitutions.

Andrew Darrin Ramseur was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 2010. He filed a motion pursuant to the North Carolina Racial Justice Act claiming that the decision to seek and impose the death penalty in his case was based significantly on the fact that he was a Black man.

Before there was a ruling on this motion, however, the North Carolina General Assembly amended the RJA in 2012 in two ways that affected Ramseur’s case.

First, it amended act, which was to apply retroactively, to specify that the trial court was not automatically required to hold an evidentiary hearing upon filing of an RJA claim; instead, the court needed only to schedule a hearing when and if the defendant stated a sufficient claim under the RJA.

Second, the amended act significantly altered evidentiary requirements and limited the options a defendant had available in order to establish racial discrimination. After the amendment of the RJA, the defendant was given 60 days to amend their motion. In compliance with these newly enacted guidelines, Ramseur filed an amended motion. However, the General Assembly soon thereafter repealed the Racial Justice Act in its entirety prior to the trial court ruling on the motion.

Almost a century ago in the case of Beazell v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court defined “ex post facto” laws as

  • laws those that punish as a crime an act previously committed, which was innocent when done,
  • laws which make more burdensome the punishment for a crime, after its commission, or
  • laws which deprive one charged with crime of any defense available according to law at the time when the act was committed.

At issue in the repeal and amendment of the RJA was that category of ex post facto laws that changes the standard by which a sentence is calculated after the defendant has committed the crime.

In ts ruling last week, the Supreme Court held that, by automatically subjecting affected individuals to a sentence of death with no opportunity to seek a reduction to sentence of life in prison as they had enjoyed while the law was in effect, the repeal of the RJA automatically increased the maximum sentence attached to the defendant’s crime.

The Supreme Court, in coming to this conclusion, looked at the standard of punishment prescribed by the statute, rather than the sentence actually imposed. Where the repealing or amending of an act changes the measure of a defendant’s punishment by altering the formula used to calculate the sentencing range, the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitution is violated. So, as to the repeal in 2013 and the amendment to the evidentiary requirements in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the prohibition against ex post facto laws was violated.

The Supreme Court did, however, rule that the RJA amendment, which allows the trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing only if it finds that the defendant’s motion states a sufficient claim, was constitutional. The court ruled that this was a mere procedural change and did not implicate prohibition against ex post facto laws. The implications of the ruling in State v. Ramseur create a clear standard of review for laws being challenged under the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws. Where the creation, amendment, or repeal of a law substantively changes the way in which a defendant’s sentence is measured, it shall be declared unconstitutional. However, where the implication of the amended law is merely a procedural change, the Ex Post Facto Clause of the Constitutions is not violated.

The ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court in these cases provides hope for hundreds of cases where defendants were sentenced to death primarily due to their race. This holding allows for these discriminatory sentences to be potentially overturned and provides hope for those who constantly fall victim to the inherent racial biases of our justice system.

Troy Schultingkemper is an intern at the North Carolina Justice Center.

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