Our current criminal legal system offers only one remedy when a crime has been committed: punishment. With the largest prison population in the world, the United States spends billions of dollars each year imprisoning and executing people. In North Carolina alone, about 66,000 adults are in prison or jail. And as much as the punishment system pays lip service to the victims of crime, it often ignores the central questions that might help create healing for people harmed by crime, their communities, and even the people who harmed them. But there is an alternative.
Who has been harmed? Why did it happen? What would help to repair the harm? How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again?
These are the questions asked by restorative justice, a growing movement that seeks alternatives to the punishment-only model. Restorative justice sees a crime as more than breaking the law; it’s an action that harms relationships and communities. The restorative justice process empowers those who are most affected by crime to have a voice in how that harm should be repaired. It promotes carefully facilitated dialogues that often result in transformation for both those harmed and those who committed crimes. The process typically ends with concrete steps the offender must take to make amends, tailored to the specific crime, its victims, and the community in which it happened. In other cases, it is used after the fact to help victims and offenders understand and heal from the trauma of the crime.
Right now, restorative justice is used in some North Carolina school districts — including Wake, Durham, and Chapel Hill — to keep children out of the criminal punishment system. A few North Carolina district attorneys have also begun to use restorative justice alongside the traditional legal process. In some cases, it has helped people take responsibility for their crimes while avoiding long prison terms, which are costly not just for incarcerated individuals but for their families, their communities, and the state. It might be tempting to think of restorative justice as a way for people to get off easy, but those familiar with the process say it makes far more demands on a person than the typical criminal legal system, where defendants passively receive punishment from a faceless system. In the criminal process, defendants sometimes come to feel like victims of a flawed system and avoid the difficult emotional work of taking responsibility for their behavior. By contrast, facing the people they harmed is a grueling process that forces them to reckon with the pain they’ve caused, accept responsibility, and participate in the community’s healing.
On North Carolina’s death row, some of the men have participated in restorative justice circles that allowed them to hear the stories of people who lost loved ones to violence. The circles encouraged them to explore the roots of their own crimes. Some people on death row say the process was life-changing, forcing them to understand the pain they caused in new ways. However, at present, only a tiny fraction of prisoners and victim family members are able to access a restorative justice process.
We envision a world in which the key questions of restorative justice are asked in every crime, especially in serious crimes that cause the most harm. We envision a system where families of murder victims have a voice in their own healing, rather than being told by the state that the death penalty will bring them “closure.” We envision a society that seeks to understand the causes and conditions of crime, and then implements evidence-based solutions to reduce its frequency. We envision a state whose response to crime is: How can we help to heal? Instead of: Who can we execute?
A LETTER TO LYNDA
In October 2019, Jason Hurst wrote a heart-felt letter recalling Lynda Simmons, a woman who had shared with men on death row her powerful story of loss and restoration. This is an excerpt from that letter, published with generous permission from both Lynda and Jason.
“I would like to say that I had a full understanding of the pain I caused immediately after committing the atrocity that sent me here, but the truth is, I had no idea. At least not until my participation in the circle group and having the privilege to meet Lynda Simmons. A courageous, forgiving, amazing person, Lynda shared with us how the murder of her son completely changed her life. There was not a dry eye among us and it was then that the destruction my actions had caused began to be clear. It was as if each of us in the room were responsible for the loss of her son and we wanted to be forgiven for it.
Over a period of several weeks, she listened as each of us told her as much or as little about what brought us here as we were comfortable with, all the while offering us comfort while surely reliving the worst day of her life. That whole moving experience opened up the idea that maybe the possibility exists for me to express how remorseful I am to the family whose lives I’ve forever altered. To assure them that not only am I physically incarcerated, but after being granted a view into Lynda Simmons’ life, I hurt internally for what I’ve done as well. I want them to know that.”
As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people.
This week, some much-needed good news came out of Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill ending the death penalty and commuting the sentences of the state’s three remaining death row prisoners. His signature made Colorado the tenth state since 2007 to decide that the death penalty isn’t necessary to maintain public safety and does more to perpetuate injustice than to ensure justice.
Right now, with Covid-19 bearing down, most states and local governments are focusing on short-term efforts to cut jail populations and release some of the scores of people who are behind bars only because they can’t afford to pay bail. But Colorado has taken a step at the other end of the spectrum, joining a national movement away from the death penalty.
As public opinion turns against the death penalty, almost of half of U.S. states no longer have the death penalty on the books. It’s past time for North Carolina to join them in abandoning this flawed and ineffective policy.
In North Carolina, a 2019 poll found that when voters were offered a broad range of alternatives to the death penalty, only about a quarter of them favored the death penalty. And nearly three-quarters said it’s likely an innocent person has been executed in North Carolina. In the past few decades, ten people sentenced to death in North Carolina have been exonerated. Ten innocent people on death row is a good enough reason to end the death penalty on its own.
Like North Carolina, Colorado’s death penalty was racially skewed. In a state where just 4 percent of the population is African American, all three men on its death row were black. In North Carolina, more than 140 people are living under sentences of death. Sixty percent are people of color, compared with only about 30 percent of the North Carolina population.
Also like North Carolina, Colorado had become deeply uneasy about the death penalty and long ago ceased executions. The people on its death row were sitting year after year, decade after decade, waiting for an execution that was unlikely to be carried out.
Yet, even when no one’s being executed and very few people are being sentenced to death, the death penalty has an outsize effect on a state’s criminal punishment system. It adds millions in yearly costs and skews the whole system toward harsher penalties. And it allows the state to threaten vulnerable suspects with death to assure their compliance, a pressure tactic that sometimes persuades even innocent people to confess.
As we fight a global pandemic, it feels more absurd than ever before to devote the resources of any state to trying to kill people. We sincerely hope that, once this health crisis is over, North Carolina will follow Colorado’s lead and turn to endeavors that support life rather than death.
The five boys were 14 and 15 years old when they were taken to the Winston-Salem police station. The cops wanted them to confess to the murder of Nathaniel Jones, a 61-year-old man who’d been beaten, robbed and left tied up on his carport, then died of a heart attack. The boys said they knew nothing about the crime.
The terrified boys didn’t know that children aren’t eligible for the death penalty. Believing it was their only way out of the interrogation room, all five broke down and confessed. A sixth child, a girl, was also interrogated by nearly a dozen officers until she agreed to falsely testify that she witnessed the boys committing the crime. The boys were convicted and sent to prison for what one judge called a “relentless, remorseless, conscienceless” crime.
You might have missed this story amid the chaos of Coronavirus, but last week, the North Carolina Innocence Commission found enough evidence to order a hearing on whether all five were wrongly convicted of Jones’ murder in 2002. A three-judge panel will now decide whether to exonerate them.
It’s a case with eerie echoes of theCentral Park Five. A psychologist called the similarities“astonishing.” However, in this case, the boys got even harsher penalties for their coerced confessions. Three of them — Christopher Bryant, Jermal Tolliver and Dorrell Brayboy — got 14 years for second-degree murder. But two brothers, Nathaniel Cauthen and Rayshawn Banner, got life without parole and are still behind bars.
The story that the Winston-Salem Journal wrote about the brothers’ sentencing in 2004 is heartbreaking to read now. Nathaniel and Rayshawn sat silently through the trial. The jury deliberated just one hour before convicting them of first-degree murder. The judge called them remorseless. And then, just before their sentence was pronounced, Nathaniel asked to speak.
“I (already) spent two years of my life in jail for something I didn’t do,” Cauthen cried, flailing his arms, his voice rising with desperation. “I can’t tell you who killed this man. It’s not my fault these people put me in a room and made me say things I didn’t do.”
With tears streaming down his face, he pointed toward prosecutors and a police detective, saying he spent his life “running from these people” who tried to blame him for things he didn’t do. He turned around and spoke to Jones’ family directly.
“I’m sorry that this man lost his life, but I can’t tell you who killed this man,” he said.
This story is a reminder that the North Carolina death penalty is often used to coerce confessions, and that it is frequently wielded against innocent people in cases with flimsy evidence. (Read CDPL’s report about this widespread abuse of the death penalty.)
But it’s especially egregious to discover that police are willing to use the death penalty to intimidate, coerce, and wrongly convict children.
During the Innocence Commission hearing, a detective admitted that he described the process of lethal injection to two of the boys — but, he claimed it was “not as a threat.” Only in the delusional, upside-down world of our criminal punishment system could a person make the claim that asking a terrified child to imagine his own execution is not a threat.
The death penalty is most certainly a threat, to our human decency most of all.
For nearly two decades, district attorneys in North Carolina have had discretion to decide which cases are serious enough to warrant the death penalty. In a state where hundreds of murders are committed each year, only a handful of people face capital trials. As public sentiment turns against executions, most N.C. counties haven’t put anyone on trial for the death penalty in more than a decade.
That’s what makes Wake DA Lorrin Freeman’s decisions about the death penalty so egregious. Freeman represents one of the state’s most forward-looking urban counties, yet she pursues the death penalty with the abandon of a 1990s prosecutor ignorant of pesky “modern” concepts like mental illness and racism.
Most of the world has banned the death penalty for people with severe mental illness. In North Carolina, it’s illegal to put a person on trial who is so mentally ill that he can’t understand the proceedings, and Freeman doesn’t dispute that Gregory is acutely psychotic. Freeman’s solution? Force Gregory to take psychiatric medications so she can get her shot at sending him to death row.
In the year before the crime, Gregory was committed to a mental hospital eight times. Doctors have diagnosed him with psychosis and schizoid effective disorder, among other things. Most DAs consider severe mental illness, which impairs a person’s ability to control their actions, understand their crime, and participate in their defense, a reason not to pursue the death penalty. In theory at least, the death penalty is meant to be reserved for the worst crimes and the most culpable defendants, and someone with severe mental illness is clearly less culpable. But, apparently, not to Freeman.
It seems she has little sympathy for people with mental illness, even when they’re innocent. James Blackmon was sentenced to life in prison in 1988, after he confessed to murder while delusional. Police interviewed Blackmon over and over while he was in a mental hospital and wearing a Superman cape. Eventually, they extracted a garbled confession. In addition to claiming responsibility for a four-year-old murder, Blackmon told police he could cause earthquakes and use telepathic powers to control other people.
Blackmon didn’t know the most important details of the crime and, the evidence now shows, was almost certainly in New York at the time. A fingerprint found at the scene matched another man with a long criminal record. And when an eye witness failed to identify Blackmon in a photo lineup, police hid the report of the lineup.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, Freeman argued last year that Blackmon should remain in prison because he did not have DNA evidence. Thankfully, the three-judge panel hearing his case disagreed with Freeman and freed Blackmon after more than thirty-five years of wrongful imprisonment. If the case were tried today, Freeman may well have sought the death penalty against Blackmon.
Since Freeman took office in 2014, Wake has sought the death penalty at trial more than any other North Carolina county. And in almost every case, the defendant has been a black man. Freeman would have voters believe she has no choice but to pursue the death penalty, but it’s simply not true. She’s making a conscious choice to put people with severe mental illness on trial for their lives, to fight to keep innocent people in prison, and to disproportionately seek the death penalty against people of color. The citizens of Wake County deserve better.
Henry McCollum and Leon Brown were intellectually disabled teenagers when they were taken from their home in rural Robeson County, coerced into confessing to a brutal murder they didn’t commit, and sentenced to death. The brothers spent 31 years in prison before DNA testing finally proved them innocent. By the time of their release in 2014, Henry was North Carolina’s longest serving death row prisoner.
Henry McCollum lived in New Jersey but had come to rural North Carolina to spend time with his mother and his brother, Leon Brown. It was the autumn of 1983. Henry was 19, and Leon was just 15. Henry had been in Robeson County for a few weeks when the body of 11-year-old Sabrina Buie was discovered in a soybean field just a short distance away from his mother’s home. The little girl been raped, and suffocated. Police in the tiny town of Red Springs began interviewing local residents, searching for suspects.
One police officer came across a high school student who repeated a rumor she’d heard at school: Henry McCollum, a teen from out of town, seemed suspicious and might have been involved in the crime. Henry had intellectual disabilities, which may have been why other teens felt he behaved strangely. When officers showed up at his mother’s house, Henry went to the police station voluntarily. It was evening, and a group of law enforcement officers kept him in an interrogation room until late in the night, demanding that Henry tell them about the crime, promising him that if he gave them the facts about the crime, he would be allowed to go home. After four and a half hours of questioning, Henry broke. He told the officers a story filled with details they’d given him, about a rape and murder he had nothing to do with. The officers wrote up a grisly confession and Henry, who could barely comprehend the written document, signed it. And then he asked, “Can I go home now?” He had no idea that he wouldn’t go home again for more than three decades.
As Henry invented the details of the rape, he added other characters to the scene to share responsibility for the awful crime. He said that his brother Leon had been with him, along with two friends. By coincidence, Leon and his mother were already at the police station; they’d come to wait for Henry. Police pulled Leon into another interrogation room, and extracted a confession from him too. Leon, who was more profoundly disabled than Henry, could not even read the document he signed just a half hour after Henry’s confession. It conflicted in significant ways with Henry’s account, and both confessions pointed to two other boys who police later determined could not possibly have been present. Yet, those two confessions — coerced, conflicting, and patently false — became the evidence that prosecutors would use to send two innocent, poor, black, disabled teenagers to death row.
Henry and Leon quickly retracted their confessions, but it was too late. In 1984, a jury sentenced both of them to death. In 1991, they won a new trial, and Leon was resentenced to life in prison. However, Henry was again sentenced to death. His confession was, once again, the key piece of evidence. During his years on death row, Henry’s case became notorious. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia pointed to the brutality of Henry’s crime as a reason to support capital punishment. During North Carolina legislative elections in 2010, Henry’s face showed up on political flyers as an example of a brutal rapist and child killer who deserved to be executed. Henry continued to proclaim his innocence to anyone who would listen.
Finally, Leon wrote to the N.C. Innocence Commission, a state agency that agreed to investigate the case. What they uncovered was shocking. Investigators knew at the time that fingerprints found at the scene didn’t match Henry or Leon, but they never compared the fingerprints to other possible suspects. And just a few weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing, another young woman was raped and murdered in Red Springs. Joann Brockman, 18, had also been raped, asphyxiated, and left in a field. The culprit was a man named Roscoe Artis, who had a long record of serious assaults against women. Artis lived next to the field where Sabrina’s body was found, yet he had never been investigated as a suspect in her death. The Innocence Commission staff unearthed items that had been left by Sabrina’s body — clothing, beer cans, cigarette butts — and conducted modern DNA testing. They found no DNA belonging to Henry and Leon, but on one cigarette butt, they found a perfect match with Roscoe Artis.
Based on the Commission’s overwhelming evidence of innocence, the brothers were released from prison in 2014. In 2015, then-Gov. Pat McCrory granted the brothers a full pardon of innocence. Also that year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer cited their case as a reason to outlaw the death penalty.
Today, Henry is rebuilding his life with the help of family. Leon, whose severe disabilities were compounded by the trauma of prison, is living in an institution. Both are pursuing a civil lawsuit against the agencies that wrongly imprisoned them. Roscoe Artis remains in prison, serving a life sentence for Brockman’s murder. He has not been prosecuted for Sabrina’s murder.
Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s in-depth story of Henry and Leon’s dramatic exoneration, read their report Saved From the Executioner
Because of a single juror, Darryl Hunt was spared the death penalty for a rape and murder he did not commit. He was not spared, however, from spending 19 years in prison — ten of those after DNA evidence showed that he was not the culprit.
In August 1984, Darryl Hunt was an impoverished teenager in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when police scooped him up and put him into a lineup for a crime he did not commit. A 25-year-old newspaper copy editor, Deborah Sykes, had been raped and stabbed to death while on her way to work. The killing of a young white woman sparked community outrage, and police were eager to make an arrest. A witness came forward to say he’d seen Ms. Sykes with a black man on the morning of the crime. Police created a lineup, and the witness picked Darryl. We now know that police lineups often lead to mistaken identifications and wrongful convictions. In Darryl’s case, that mistaken identification was the beginning of a saga that would lead to two decades in prison and then two decades of activism, fighting the system that had wrongly imprisoned him and so many others.
At his 1985 trial, the main evidence tying Darryl to the crime was the mistaken testimony of people who said they had seen him on the morning of the murder with Sykes or at a hotel disposing of bloody towels. Their identification of Darryl was shaky at best. Another witness, Darryl’s girlfriend, claimed he had confessed to her. She was facing her own prosecution on larceny charges and likely hoped that her testimony in Darryl’s case would result in lighter punishment. Later, she recanted her testimony against Darryl. Darryl testified that he did not know Deborah Sykes and had no involvement with the crime. Darryl was sentenced to life in prison, because of that single juror who refused to make it a unanimous vote for death.
In 1989, Darryl’s conviction was overturned because prosecutors had relied on the girlfriend’s since-recanted statements. Prosecutors offered Darryl a deal. He could be freed by pleading guilty and accepting a sentence of the five years he had already served. He refused to admit to a crime he did not commit. Darryl was retried for murder, and again sentenced to life in prison.
In 1994, scientific advances allowed for DNA testing, which revealed that the DNA of the rapist did not match Darryl’s. In a hearing about the newly discovered DNA, the state changed its story, now insisting that there was more than one assailant and that Darryl killed the victim while another man raped her. The judge ruled in the prosecution’s favor, saying the DNA evidence did not prove his innocence. Darryl remained in prison for another decade.
In 2004, after immense public pressure, the state finally ran the crime scene DNA through a database of people convicted of felonies and found a perfect match — a man who had committed a similar rape just months after Deborah Sykes’ murder. Willard Brown confessed, and Darryl was finally freed. That same year, Darryl received a rare pardon of innocence from the governor.
Darryl spent 19 years in prison after a conviction based on mistaken identification and recanted testimony.
Darryl spent 15 years in prison after his conviction was overturned and he refused a plea deal that would have allowed him to go home.
Darryl spent 10 years in prison after DNA evidence proved he had not assaulted Ms. Sykes.
Between his date of conviction and date of exoneration, 29 people were executed in North Carolina.
Darryl spent the rest of his life advocating to end capital punishment and ensure that no more innocent people get the death penalty in North Carolina. “If I had gotten a death sentence,” he said, “there’s no doubt in my mind I would have been executed.” He founded the Darryl Hunt Project for Freedom and Justice, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advocating for the wrongfully convicted supporting people recently released from prison.
In a loss to us all, Darryl died in 2016. He was 51.
CDPL attorney Elizabeth Hambourger has studied the ways that stereotypes affect who sits on death penalty juries in North Carolina criminal cases. In this guest post, she writes about a new case of jury bias making its way through the state’s courts.
By Elizabeth Hambourger
Until the middle of the 20th century, the law barred women from jury service. The myth was that women are weak and overly emotional, not rational enough to serve on juries.
A brief filed in late September in a North Carolina death penalty case shines a rare light on the persistence of sexist stereotypes in the legal system. Bryan Bell was sentenced to death in Sampson County in 2001. In 2010, he filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act, citing statistics that revealed a sweeping pattern of race discrimination in capital jury selection. The prosecutor in Bell’s case, Greg Butler, excluded several black citizens from Bell’s jury. Among them was an African American woman named Viola Morrow.
In response to the statistical pattern revealed by the RJA, Butler submitted a remarkable affidavit. To defend himself from the charges of race discrimination, Butler explained that he struck Morrow from the jury, not because she was black but because she was a woman. Butler said he rejected Morrow because he “was looking for a male juror and potential foreperson.” In another capital trial, Butler confessed that he excluded two women because he was “looking for strong male jurors.”
It‘s unconstitutional for a lawyer to use either race or gender as a factor in jury selection. In 1994, in J.E.B. v. Alabama, the Supreme Court rejected the very type of sexist reasoning Butler expressed in his affidavits: that women are not “strong” enough for jury service, that women are not capable of handling the leadership role of foreperson. The Court said it would not tolerate jury strikes based on these “invidious, archaic, and overbroad” stereotypes.
In J.E.B., the justices also recognized that, if they condoned jury discrimination on the basis of gender, lawyers might use it as a way to disguise race discrimination in jury selection. It certainly seems possible that’s exactly what Butler was trying to do when he crafted his affidavit. But whether based on race or gender, his actions were not only unacceptable but illegal.
The only way to stop such blatant discrimination is for courts to overturn convictions when it happens. Unfortunately, North Carolina appellate courts have a shameful record when it comes to policing jury discrimination: they have never overturned a single conviction on grounds that a juror was discriminated against on the basis of race or gender. But Bell’s is the unusual case in which a prosecutor openly admitted discriminating. If Butler’s affidavit doesn’t prove discrimination, what does? Nevertheless, the first court to consider the affidavit simply ignored it and upheld Bell’s conviction.
Now our state Supreme Court has an opportunity to make clear that women belong on North Carolina juries and that our state will not tolerate discrimination on the basis of misogynistic myths. Significantly, three of the seven Supreme Court justices hearing the case will be women, the most women ever to serve on our Court at once. One might well wonder whether prosecutor Greg Butler thinks these accomplished women are “strong” enough to be Supreme Court justices. Of course, this time, they’ll be the ones judging him.
At the end of August, our movement made history. A group of talented attorneys from across the state and the nation argued before the North Carolina Supreme Court. At issue were the cases of six men and women on death row who have uncovered compelling proof that their sentences were poisoned by racial discrimination. All six filed claims under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA). Black citizens were illegally excluded from their juries. At least two defendants were tried amid public threats of lynching, and in one case those threats came from members of the jury pool. One defendant was referred to by a racial slur in open court … by the prosecutor. The evidence of racism is crystal clear.
At Tilmon Golphin’s trial, two white members of the jury pool were overheard saying he “never should have made it out of the woods” where he fled while police were trying to arrest him for murder. Those two people were never removed from the jury pool.
At Quintel Augustine’s trial, the prosecutor wrote notes such as “blk wino” about the races of prospective jurors and then struck all the black jurors, leaving a black defendant to be sentenced to death by an all-white jury. At Marcus Robinson’s trial, prosecutors singled out black prospective jurors with demeaning questions, like whether they failed in school or knew how to read. No white jurors were asked such questions.
During the arguments, attorneys for the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office did not dispute the evidence of discrimination. In fact, they admitted that racism in capital trials is serious and must be dealt with. But they asked the Supreme Court to deny the cases and leave the defendants to litigate their discrimination claims in the lower courts, which have failed for decades to root out racial discrimination in the death penalty. The RJA attorneys made a passionate argument that the state’s highest court must take on this critical issue. If it doesn’t, it will send the message that our state is willing to execute people even after overwhelming evidence of racism in their trials has come to light. The arguments concluded with Jay Ferguson’s powerful words to the justices: “If not now, when? If not you, who?”
For decades, North Carolina’s high courts have refused to acknowledge discrimination in jury selection, even though it has been blatant and endemic. “Weighing on this court’s shoulders is hundreds of years of history of discrimination against African American citizens … With all that history, how does this court respond?” Henderson Hill asked.
“When we stand back and we take a long view of history, we’ve got to go all the way back to the days of slavery, ” civil rights leader James Ferguson, II said. “During those days, capital punishment was largely imposed upon slaves and more often than not for crimes against white people. This is the original context in which we come today.”
Ferguson said the RJA fits into our state’s history of civil rights advances followed by fierce resistance to change. Slavery was abolished, but resistance led to lynching and Jim Crow. The Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but resistance kept schools segregated for many years after the court’s ruling. Today, the state is resisting the positive change that the Racial Justice Act sought to create and trying to execute people whose trials were poisoned by racism.
“What particularly is the role of this court, which is the leader of the judiciary in NC? It is not simply to sit and watch this change come about; it is about signaling that there is a change and taking the leadership in seeing that change come about. These are cases which present not just an opportunity for this court to lead, but we submit, they highlight and emphasize the responsibility that this court has to lead.”
Cassandra Stubbs took on the state’s argument that evidence of racial bias in capital cases, which was exposed by the RJA, should be thrown out of court because the law was later repealed. “Never before has a state done what the state of North Carolina is attempting to do here, and never before has any court sanctioned dismissal of comparable allegations and proof of racial bias. The state’s position is, now that the Racial Justice Act has been repealed, we should forget about the evidence of discrimination and move on. But … the court cannot look away.”
It wasn’t just the attorneys who recognized the importance of these cases. Many community members turned out to support the Racial Justice Act.
Thanks for your interest in attending the historic RJA hearings on August 26th and 27th. To help you prepare for your visit, we’ve answered a few frequently asked questions below.
Know before you visit:
A government issued photo identification is required for entry into the courthouse
Business casual dress is preferred.
Talking is not permitted inside the courtroom.
Do not approach or walk to the front of the courtroom.
Cell phones must be turned off or placed on silent only.
Electronic devices cannot be used to take photographs or to make audio or video recordings of
court proceedings. Violations may result in the confiscation of your electronic device.
No food or drinks of any kind is allowed inside the courtroom. Eating, drinking, and sleeping while
in the courtroom is not permitted.
Parking and timing: The Supreme Court is located at Two East Morgan Street in downtown Raleigh. Several parking lots and decks open to the public are nearby, including parking lots and decks at:
120 South Wilmington St.
1 South Wilmington St.
201 West Morgan St.
222 West Hargett St.
We recommend an earlier arrival. On the day of the argument, you should arrive at the Court in plenty of time to pass through security, find the courtroom, and settle into your seat before the session begins. The Justice Building opens at 8:00 a.m. The courtroom, located on the third floor, opens at 8:30 a.m. Oral arguments begin at 9:30 a.m.
What is the North Carolina Supreme Court (NCSC): The North Carolina Supreme Court is the highest court in the state and has the final say as to issues arising under the NC Constitution, NC General Statutes, and NC common law. Where a decision of the NCSC implicates a question arising under a federal statute or the federal Constitution, the US Supreme Court may elect to grant certiorari and hear an appeal on those issues.
Who serves on the North Carolina Supreme Court: The North Carolina Supreme Court consists of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices. All seven Justices are elected in statewide non-partisan races and serve staggered eight-year terms. More info on the justices can be found here.
What is the role of The North Carolina Supreme Court? The NCSC hears:
death penalty appeals directly from the North Carolina Superior Courts,
appeals from divided panels of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and
certain discretionary appeals from unanimous panels of the North Carolina Court of Appeals
All cases before the Supreme Court are orally argued.
What can be expected when hearing a case at the NCSC: An opinion deciding the appeal typically follows about six months after the oral arguments, though it may take shorter or longer.
2009 The N.C. Racial Justice Act was adopted by the state legislature on a party-line vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
2010 In August, most people on North Carolina’s death row filed claims under the RJA, citing a study by researchers at Michigan State University showing statewide racial disparities in charging, sentencing, and jury selection decisions in capital cases tried in North Carolina between 1990-2010.
After the November elections, the Republicans took control of both houses of the General Assembly.
2012 The first evidentiary hearing in the state on an RJA claim is held in the case of Cumberland County’s Marcus Robinson. Following a two-week hearing, Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks entered an order vacating Robinson’s death sentence and resentencing him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Judge Weeks found that prosecutors struck African-American citizens from juries at over twice the rate that they struck white citizens. Judge Weeks also determined that prosecutors in Cumberland County and around the state had engaged in intentional discrimination against African-American jurors.
Just months after the Robinson decision, the newly-GOP-controlled General Assembly amended and narrowed the RJA.
Later that fall, a second RJA hearing was held in Cumberland County in the cases of three more people on death row: Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin, and Christina Walters. Judge Weeks again ruled race was a significant factor in prosecutors’ peremptory strike decisions and that prosecutors had engaged in intentional discrimination against African-American citizens. He resentenced all three defendants to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Among Judge Weeks’ findings were that prosecutors used a “cheat sheet” of manufactured answers to justify striking African-American citizens from juries, and that they wrote racially-charged notes about potential black jurors, such as “blk wino – drugs” or being from a “respectable blk family” or from a “blk/high drug” area.
2013 In March, the State appealed Judge Weeks’ decisions in all of the Cumberland County RJA cases.
In June, the General Assembly repealed the RJA.
2015 In December, the North Carolina Supreme Court remanded the cases of the four Cumberland County defendants to the trial court. The Supreme Court found no specific problem with Judge Weeks’ determinations about prosecutors’ improper use of race in jury selection, but instead found that the prosecution should have been given more time to prepare its own statistical study and that the consolidated RJA case should not have combined the cases of three defendants into one hearing.
2016 In March, the North Carolina Supreme Court granted petitions for certiorari review in two capital cases where RJA motions were filed, but never heard in court. These cases raise the question of whether the repeal of the RJA can be applied retroactively to void claims filed prior to the repeal. The defendants in these two Iredell County cases are Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur.
In November, a superior court judge heard oral argument in the Cumberland County cases on the question of whether the RJA motions that previously resulted in Judge Weeks imposing life-without-parole sentences should be dismissed based on the General Assembly’s repeal of the RJA.
2017 In January, the superior court dismissed the RJA motions of the four Cumberland defendants.
In May, the four sought review in the North Carolina Supreme Court.
2018 In March, the Court granted review in the four Cumberland cases.
In July, the Cumberland defendants filed their opening briefs in the state supreme court, along with supporting amicus briefs from groups including the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP of North Carolina, NC Association of Black Lawyers, prominent civil rights advocates, and a coalition of former prosecutors.
2019 On August 26 and 27, the Supreme Court of North Carolina will convene oral argument in the cases of the Cumberland 4 and Iredell 2.
On June 5th, 2020 the North Carolina Supreme Court issued two landmark civil rights rulings on the Racial Justice Act, clearing the way for a much-needed review of racial discrimination in death penalty cases across the state.
The court decided 6-1 that Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, prisoners on North Carolina’s death row, are entitled to hearings where they can present evidence that prosecutors purposefully excluded African American citizens from their juries and that racism tainted their trials. The rulings also mean that death row prisoners across North Carolina who filed claims under the N.C. Racial Justice Act before its repeal in 2013 are entitled to present their evidence in court. The justices decided the cases under the state constitution, so they cannot be appealed.
“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 CDPL Executive Director Gretchen M. 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.”
Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s full press release here.
On August 14, 2020 another RJA case was decided by the NC Supreme Court: the Court reinstated Marcus Robinson’s life sentence. The court found that Robinson had been unconstitutionally returned to death row, despite unrefuted proof that Black jurors were intentionally denied the right to serve on his jury. The court ruled that Robinson cannot be executed, but may serve a life sentence instead, because of the “overwhelming evidence” of racial bias presented in his case.
It is not clear how the court’s decision will affect the three other petitioners, Christina Walters, Tilmon Golphin, and Quintel Augustine who had also been re-sentenced to life under the RJA in 2012 but then sent back to death row in 2017.
“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, an ACLU attorney who is part of the Racial Justice Act litigation. “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.”
More than 100 other people on death row have also presented evidence of significant racial bias and their claims are still pending in court.
Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s full press release here.
On August 26th and 27th, 2019, the NC Supreme Court heard oral arguments in six cases involving the Racial Justice Act (RJA). Here’s what you can do now to learn more and help protect RJA.
Spread the word. Your voice matters. Write a letter to the editor. Talk to your friends. Think local, think statewide, think about your regional newspaper, faith group, or book club. Share this site and share your thoughts on why capital punishment must come to an end. Go here for a Racial Justice Act fact sheet to help you write your letter, craft your speech, or hand out at your event.
Show up. Share. Let your voice be heard: North Carolina Must End This Racist Machinery of Death.
The Racial Justice Act Overview
In 2009, after several innocent black men were freed from death row, the North Carolina legislature passed the ground-breaking Racial Justice Act (RJA). The law allowed people on NC’s death row to present evidence that racial bias played a role in their death sentences. Those who could prove discrimination would be resentenced to life in prison.
The law led to a statewide study, which showed that people of color are systematically excluded from serving on capital juries at more than twice the rate of whites—along with a trove of evidence that prosecutors were purposefully striking black jurors in violation of federal law.
In 2012, the first four people to bring their RJA cases to court won and were resentenced to life in prison because of discrimination in jury selection. But their victory was quickly snatched away, even though the state was unable to refute the evidence of discrimination. The state appealed the decisions and the North Carolina Supreme Court, finding procedural errors in the first hearings, remanded the cases for new proceedings.
In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to repeal the RJA. Governor Pat McCrory signed the repeal into law. Soon after, a court dismissed the four cases that had been remanded for new hearings, saying they were no longer entitled to hearings because of the law’s repeal. The four defendants were returned to death row.
From death to life to death again.
Now, the N.C. Supreme Court must make a key decision.
On August 26 and 27, the state Supreme Court heard six cases under the RJA. The Court will be asked to decide whether those first four defendants are entitled to reinstatement of their life-without-parole sentences, or whether they should get new hearings to present compelling evidence of race discrimination in their cases. In two other cases, the Court will decide whether people on death row who filed claims under the RJA will still get the chance to present their evidence in court, even after the law’s repeal.
Of the six defendants, three were sentenced to death by all-white juries; one by a jury with one person of color. This mirrors state-wide discrepancies. At the time of the RJA’s passage in 2009, North Carolina was 34 percent non-white, but almost half of North Carolina’s death row prisoners had been sentenced by juries with no meaningful minority representation.
As the Court considers these six cases, the essential question is this: Will North Carolina confront overwhelming evidence of racial bias in the death penalty and protect the constitutional rights of jurors and defendants? Or will it throw away a mountain of evidence without addressing it, sending a message that discrimination doesn’t matter and thereby eroding the public’s trust in the system?
The RJA study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, analyzed N.C. capital cases from 1990-2010. It found that qualified black jurors were struck from capital juries more than twice as often as white jurors. The researchers controlled for factors, and the disparity was attributable only to race.
In addition, defendants found direct evidence of discrimination such as prosecutors’ notes about potential jurors’ races. The notes about black jurors who were struck included descriptions such as “blk wino” and “thug.” They also found documents from a training session, in which N.C. district attorneys were taught to strike black jurors for preposterous reasons such as their hairstyles, clothing, or body language.
Black people have been denied the right to serve on juries throughout American history. Many black men in America, in spite of their innocence, have been convicted and sentenced to death with charges brought by white prosecutors, tried in front of white judges, and before all-white juries. While citizens of color were once kept off juries by openly racist laws and policies, the discrimination is now more difficult to detect. Prosecutors use peremptory strikes to remove black jurors, and are often not required to provide any explanation for why they struck those jurors.
Why It Matters
The right to a jury of one’s peers is a fundamental Constitutional right. For most Americans, serving on a jury is, along with voting, the most direct way to participate in democracy. Studies also show that diverse juries deliberate more thoroughly and are less likely to convict innocent people.
Evidence of Discrimination in Each Case
Despite a prohibition against prosecutors using peremptory strikes in a race-conscious manner, all of the defendants obtained evidence of racial bias in jury selection. Many of the cases also included deeply troubling evidence of other forms of racial discrimination during legal proceedings. These include:
During jury selection in Tilmon Golphin’s case, a prospective African American juror heard two white jurors saying that Mr. Golphin “should have never made it out of the woods” [when he was taken into police custody]. The African American juror was struck, in part, because he reported overhearing these statements. It is unknown whether the white jurors who made the comments served on Mr. Golphin’s jury. Read Tilmon Golphin’s full brief.
“In front of an all-white jury, the prosecutor explicitly drew attention to [Rayford] Burke’s race. In closing arguments, while urging jurors to find [Mr.] Burke guilty, the prosecution referred to [Mr.] Burke as a ‘big black bull.’” Read Rayford Burke’s full brief.
In the courtroom in which Andrew Ramseur was tried, there was “crime scene tape” cordoning off the four rows behind him; his family, including his elderly grandfather, was literally required to sit in the back of the courtroom despite no reason being provided. Counsel moved to have the crime scene tape removed. After the Court initially denied the request, the tape was eventually removed, but Mr. Ramseur’s family was still required to sit in the back of the courtroom rather than behind him, without explanation. Read Andrew Ramseur’s full brief.
The prosecutor in Quintel Augustine’s case wrote racially-charged handwritten notes about prospective jurors. He described a Black juror who drank as a “blk. Wino” but a white juror who drank as a “drinks–country boy–OK.” He described a Black female juror as “ok” because she was from a “respectable blk family.” Read Quintel Augustine’s full brief.
During jury selection in Marcus Robinson’s case, the prosecutor asked a Black high school graduate whether he had repeated any grades or had trouble reading – questions he had asked no white juror. The prosecutor later testified that he recognized that he harbors implicit racial biases. Read Marcus Robinson’s full brief.
At Christina Walters’ trial, the prosecutor struck 10 of 14 potential black jurors, a strike rate of 3.6 times that of potential white jurors. Her explanations for why she struck black jurors did not hold up to scrutiny. For example, the prosecutor struck one black juror because he “did not feel like a victim” after his car had been broken into and a CD player stolen. Yet, she kept two white jurors who minimized the impact of their experience as victims of minor property crimes. Read Christina Walters’ full brief.
What Friends of the Court (otherwise known as Amici) Are Saying
“After a long and tragic history of entrenched racial discrimination in the administration of North Carolina’s death penalty, this Court can pave a new path for North Carolina’s judicial system that demonstrates an unequivocal commitment to fundamental fairness and racial equality. Especially with respect to juries, which are a crucial exercise of citizenship that is essential to the integrity of the judicial process, there simply should be no tolerance for the taint of racial bias.
No act by the North Carolina Legislature can wish away what we now know to be true from overwhelming statistical evidence: racial discrimination impermissibly influences the administration of North Carolina’s death penalty.”
ACLU Capital Punishment Project, ACLU of North Carolina,
North Carolina Advocates for Justice, and NC Conference of the NAACP (full brief here)
Whether our state courts will tolerate epidemic levels of racial bias and discrimination in jury selection is a question of grave importance to both our State and the perceived legitimacy of the criminal justice system.
In light of the evidence uncovered under the RJA, there can be no real question about whether race played a role in defendants’ capital trials. The only question is whether this Court will squarely face the record and respond in a way that honors our Constitution.
Capital punishment is now constrained to a dwindling handful of locations, reserved not for the most culpable offenders, but for those unlucky few prosecuted under anachronistic circumstances. In North Carolina, whatever standard method of measurement used, it is now beyond dispute that use of the death penalty is unusual. Indeed, use of capital punishment has dropped to such low levels that it would be hard to argue that it fulfills an indispensable role in the criminal justice system. And yet, the death penalty has an out-sized effect on our confidence in the fair administration of punishment.
Experience has taught us that while many prisoners undergo significant transformation, the death penalty leaves no room for the possibility of redemption. It thereby diminishes the dignity of human life that it was designed to enhance.
In every generation, there are those who counsel deliberation, patience, and a measured approach to the evolution of the standards of decency. But it comes at a cost: delay in addressing the constitutionality of capital punishment serves to further undermine and erode confidence in the administration of the system that capital punishment was once enacted to protect. The time has come to consider whether the system of capital punishment that currently operates in North Carolina violates the evolving standards of decency.”
Marcus should not be executed, especially not before the courts hold a fair hearing on the evidence that his death sentence came about in a racially biased manner. One judge has already found that such bias existed. Our Supreme Court, which is bound to fairness, now has a duty to all North Carolina citizens to make sure that this evidence sees the light of day.
James E. Ferguson II, renowned NC lawyer and civil rights champion (full article here)
The one thing that could not be repealed was the evidence that was brought out in the cases that we tried under the Racial Justice Act. We showed that racism has been a defining factor in jury selection in capital cases. So, the repeal of the act doesn’t change the facts. Our courts have the power, when racism is demonstrated as it has been under the Racial Justice Act, to take action and make sure that we don’t have people going to the death chamber because race played a role in jury selection or any other aspect of the case. I hope they will use their authority to ensure a more fair system, one that is not tainted by racial prejudice.
Study after study has shown that North Carolina prosecutors exclude qualified African-Americans from juries at twice to three times the rate they exclude white citizens. Prosecutors’ notes sometimes reflect their distrust of black jurors. In one case, for example, a prosecutor tagged African-American jurors with notations such as “blk wino,” and “blk/high drug area.” This is not an isolated occurrence.
My point is not that North Carolina prosecutors are racists or bigots; most likely intend to follow the law. But we now accept as fact that implicit bias affects human decisions, regardless of our legal training or good intentions. However, in a world in which the practice of excluding African-Americans from jury service is longstanding and tacitly accepted by our courts, such bias is persistent.
The RJA was only the second law of its kind in the nation and it was the first to address race discrimination in jury selection. The RJA established that no person in North Carolina could be capitally-prosecuted or executed if racial bias was a significant factor in the case. The law was sorely needed in the wake of several exonerations of African-Americans wrongfully convicted and even sentenced to death by all-white or nearly all-white juries.
North Carolina death row is the fifth largest in the nation, with more than 140 men and women. About three-quarters of them were sentenced in the 1990s, before a slate of reforms transformed the North Carolina death penalty. They were tried and sentenced to death before basic protections were written into the law, and when public attitudes about the death penalty were far more favorable. Under modern laws and standards, almost none of today’s North Carolina death row prisoners would have gotten the death penalty.
People tried before 2001, when North Carolina’s death penalty reforms began to take effect, had no agency to ensure them a trained capital attorney. They weren’t guaranteed the right to see all the evidence in the prosecutor’s case file. Procedures had not yet been created for recording confessions and preventing mistaken identifications in police lineups. Also during those years, a court mandate required prosecutors to seek death for virtually every first-degree murder. It was the only such requirement in the nation, and it led North Carolina to have one of the nation’s highest death sentencing rates during the 1990s. Dozens of people were sent to North Carolina death row each year.
Under today’s laws, the system remains imperfect and unjust. But North Carolina death penalty reforms have at least reduced the capital punishment’s reach. N.C. juries now sentence an average of less than one person a year to death. There are just a handful of death penalty trials each year.
Yet, more than 100 people sentenced under outdated laws remain on North Carolina death row, year after year, decade after decade. They are trapped a system that has moved on, but refuses to reckon with its past. The people on North Carolina’s death row received Unequal Justice.
Watch the story of Nathan Bowie, who has spent more than 25 years on death row for a crime committed as a teenager:
Read the Center for Death Penalty Litigation’s 2018 report, Unequal Justice, about North Carolina death row:
Parker, the former prosecutor, did not attend the execution of Ronald Frye in 2001. “I gave my ticket to the arresting officer,” he said. Parker said he had developed a certain level of affection for Frye by then. “I thought he has what’s coming to him, but I wasn’t gonna go watch him die.”
I asked Parker if he would feel satisfied if Nathan Bowie were to be executed today, 25 years after he was convicted. Would he consider it justice? Parker paused. “I really haven’t given it much thought,” he said, adding, “I did my job.” He doesn’t miss it. He’s happily retired, playing golf a few times a week, he told me. “I don’t think about it much anymore. I leave it alone.”