The North Carolina Supreme Court issued a much-anticipated decision today involving the Racial Justice Act — a state statute that was passed into law in 2009 and repealed in 2013.
In today’s ruling, which was authored by Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, the court ruled that when, while it was still in effect, defendant Marcus Robinson successfully challenged his death sentence under the terms of the law (which allowed defendants to make a showing that racial bias tainted their trials, including the selection of their juries), the fact that the law was later repealed did not mean that he could be re-sentenced to death.
According the court majority in the 4-3 ruling, such a re-imposition of a death sentence amounted to double jeopardy and was thus unconstitutional. As Beasley wrote in her 29 page opinion:
“Once the trial court found that Robinson had proven all of the essential elements under the [Racial Justice Act] to bar the imposition of the death penalty, he was acquitted of that capital sentence, jeopardy terminated, and any attempt by the State to reimpose the death penalty would be a violation of our state’s constitution.”
Attorneys at the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation lauded the ruling as “a historic call for the state to address and rise above its history of excluding Black citizens from jury service and allowing racial bias to seep into the prosecution of capital cases.”
“This is one of the most important decisions I’ve ever seen from our state Supreme Court,” said CDPL Executive Director Gretchen Engel. “It seems that Justice Beasley and her colleagues intend to make good on the promise that no person should be executed if race was a factor in their death sentence.”
Robinson was one of four individuals who were able to obtain relief under the Racial Justice Act and to whom the ruling presumably applies. The ruling comes just over two months after the court held in the case of State v. Ramseur, that all of the more than 100 individuals who sought relief under the law while it was in effect are entitled to their days in court.
Justice Beasley’s opinion was joined by Justices Michael Morgan and Anita Earls. Justice Robin Hudson wrote a brief concurring opinion in which she endorsed the court’s conclusion with respect to double jeopardy, but differed with some aspects of its findings with respect to lower court’s actions.
Justice Paul Newby, who is challenging Beasley in this fall’s election, authored a lengthy dissent in which he rejected the court’s finding that re-sentencing Robinson to death for a second time constituted double jeopardy and called the court’s action “judicial activism.”
Justice Sam Ervin IV wrote a separate dissent (joined by Justice Mark Davis) in which he lauded the intent of the Racial Justice Act, but said that he would have remanded the case to the trial court in Cumberland County for another hearing on the merits of the defendant’s claim under the Act.
North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006 and, today, Henderson Hill, an ACLU attorney who is part of the Racial Justice Act litigation, expressed the hope that the ruling would further cement that trend going forward.
“It’s unthinkable that we could amass a mountain of evidence showing that race plays a role in the North Carolina death penalty and then just ignore it and return to executing people,” said Henderson Hill. “Today, the high court declared that it’s unacceptable for North Carolina to keep its head in the sand, and we are grateful. It is time for everyone in North Carolina to ask themselves, after decades of racially-biased prosecutions, whether the state should still have the right to carry out executions.”