N.C. Supreme Court: Racial Justice Act is key to ending death penalty racism

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The mothers of Marcus Robinson and Quintel Augustine speaking to attorneys at the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2019

The North Carolina Supreme Court has issued 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. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote, “equal protection to all must be given—not merely promised” and pointed to an “egregious legacy of the racially discriminatory application” of the death penalty. (Read the full decision here.)


The 4-3 ruling came in the case of Marcus Robinson, the first death row prisoner to be resentenced to life without parole under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act. 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.


“Robinson’s claims under the RJA do not negate or diminish his guilt or the impact of his crimes on the victim’s family, the victim’s friends, and the community,” Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote. “Rather, the Act ensured that even those who commit the most serious offenses are entitled to a trial and sentencing free from racial discrimination.”


“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. This is a critical issue of racial justice, both for people on death row and for African Americans seeking to participate in our democracy. It’s heartening to see the court recognizing that fact, in all its difficulty and complexity, and taking bold action.”


The decision marked the second time in three months that the state Supreme Court forcefully rejected a legislative effort to void the Racial Justice Act and bury the evidence of racially-biased death sentences that the law revealed. In June, the court ruled that all death row prisoners who filed claims under the Racial Justice Act are entitled to hearings, even though the law was repealed in 2013.


Friday’s decision, in addition to finding clear evidence of discrimination against African American jurors in Robinson’s case, recognized the connection between modern jury selection practices and the centuries-long history of racism in America. It chronicled “the many ways African Americans have struggled to participate in our democratic processes,” beginning with post-Civil War laws explicitly barring Black people from jury service and then morphing into Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests. It described the modern peremptory strike as the newest tactic used to remove qualified Black citizens from juries.


The court made a strong case for the Racial Justice Act’s necessity, saying it was passed in response to the failure of North Carolina courts to enforce federal standards barring racially motivated jury strikes. “The goal of this historic legislation was simple: to abolish racial discrimination from capital sentencing. That is, to ensure that no person in this state is put to death because of the color of their skin,” Beasley wrote.


The Racial Justice Act legal team

The North Carolina legislature passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009. It led to a statewide study showing that, in capital trials, prosecutors dismissed Black citizens at 2.5 times the rate they excluded whites. This disparity was driven entirely by race and could not be attributed to any other factor, such as death penalty views.


Robinson, along with Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin, and Christina Walters, were the only four death row prisoners to have Racial Justice Act hearings before the law was repealed in 2013. All four defendants won their cases, using the study to show a pattern of discrimination that denied them the right to a jury of their peers. In addition to the study, the defendants unearthed prosecutors’ notes referring to jurors with denigrating terms like “blk wino,” and training materials showing that their prosecutors had been instructed on how to invent “race-neutral” reasons to justify their strikes of Black jurors.


In 2012, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks resentenced all four to life without parole after finding a “wealth of evidence” that systemic exclusion of Black jurors had tainted their death sentences. Friday’s decision recognized that Weeks’ findings were “meticulously detailed.” However, over the next few years, though their evidence of racial bias was never disproven, they were again placed at risk of execution.


After the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, the N.C. Supreme Court overturned Weeks’ ruling on procedural grounds, saying the hearings should have been held separately rather than jointly and that prosecutors should have had more time to prepare their case, even though the trial court had already given the state two continuances. The court ordered new RJA hearings for the four defendants, and in a legally questionable move, the N.C. Department of Public Safety quickly returned them to death row.


Then, when they requested the hearings the Supreme Court had ordered, a Superior Court judge refused to hold them, saying that the defendants were no longer entitled to hearings because the law had been repealed. All four appealed to the state Supreme Court, but the court has not yet decided the cases of Augustine, Golphin and Walters.


“Our clients ended up in the ultimate Catch-22,” Engel said. “They had clear proof of racism that they presented under a valid law. Then, the state Supreme Court asked them to present the evidence again. When they tried to do that, the state said, ‘Sorry, too late. The law no longer exists.’ Today, this Supreme Court, under the strong leadership of Chief Justice Beasley, said that North Carolina must stop playing games with justice and start looking at the big picture, which clearly shows that our death penalty is racist.”


Advocates said they believe the evidence of racial bias in capital prosecutions, uncovered as a result of the Racial Justice Act, raises serious questions about the legitimacy of North Carolina’s death penalty.


“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.”

Originally posted as a press release by the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL). CDPL is a non-profit law firm based in Durham, N.C., that represents people on death row and is part of the team litigating North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.

Go here for more detail on the Racial Justice Act.

Read Bryan Stevenson’s op-ed on the importance of the Racial Justice Act.