What's at Stake
Hasson Bacote, a Black man from Johnston County, North Carolina, is challenging his death sentence under the first-of-its kind law, the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA). He argues that race played an impermissible role in jury selection, not just in his case, but in all death penalty cases in North Carolina. Mr. Bacote’s case may signal the beginning of the end of the death penalty in North Carolina. A trial court will begin to hear evidence in the case on February 26, 2024.
In 2009, North Carolina adopted the first-of-its-kind law called the Racial Justice Act. It allowed people on death row to challenge their sentences if they could show race played a factor in capital cases at the time of their trial. More than 130 people, including Mr. Bacote, filed claims challenging their death sentences under the new law.
In 2012, the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and other civil rights organizations brought the first successful claims under the RJA on behalf of four people: Marcus Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters, and Quintel Augustine. In all four cases, a judge found discrimination had played an impermissible role in their cases, and commuted their death sentences to life without parole. The North Carolina Supreme Court later reversed the trial judge’s findings of discrimination on the ground that the State should have had additional time to prepare for the RJA hearing, but it ruled that four prisoners could not be stripped of the life sentences imposed by the judge. In 2013, as a backlash to the success of these four individuals, the North Carolina legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act. But the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that those who had already filed their cases under the RJA were entitled to move forward, despite the repeal.
Now, over a decade after the law was passed, Mr. Bacote is poised to test the law at an evidentiary hearing. Mr. Bacote’s case is the leading case of the more than 100 pending RJA claims brought by North Carolinians on death row. Mr. Bacote, a Black man, was sentenced to death for his role in a felony murder that occurred when he was 21 years old in Johnston County. Mr. Bacote is only one of a small number of individuals sentenced to death in North Carolina who was neither charged nor convicted of intentional and premeditated murder.
Mr. Bacote will show evidence that race impacted not only jury selection in his case, but also in Johnston County and across the state of North Carolina. The prosecution removed Black jurors at three times the rate it removed white jurors in his case. Statewide, prosecutors struck Black jurors at more than twice the rate it struck all other jurors. Every Black defendant in Johnston County who has been tried for the death penalty received a death sentence, in a county that, in living memory, had multiple billboards proclaiming the county as “Klan Country,” and telling drivers to “love it or leave it.”
Mr. Bacote is represented by the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the Center for Death Penalty Litigation as well as attorneys James Ferguson, Jay Ferguson, and Malcolm Hunter.