North Carolina Racial Justice Act

Document Date: December 17, 2012

Four North Carolina death row prisoners, including Marcus Robinson, were resentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole under the state’s Racial Justice Act (RJA). The resentencing came after a judge determined that race had played a part in the selection of their juries. The state appealed the decisions, after which the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that there were procedural errors in the first hearings and remanded the cases for new proceedings. But then, on remand, the judge dismissed all four cases instead of holding new hearings on their claims of racial bias.

Robinson and the other three prisoners sought review of the dismissals, and the cases are now pending with the North Carolina Supreme Court.

The cases ask important questions of constitutional law, including whether the state and federal constitutions require an avenue of judicial review for substantial claims of racial bias. In other words, if a death row prisoner uncovers new evidence of the racial bias, is the State free to sweep this evidence under the rug, to never allow it to be heard in court?

The cases also raise important questions about whether the prisoners can be sentenced to death again after receiving life sentences, given the state and federal constitutional and statutory protections against double jeopardy.

The North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA) allowed capital defendants to challenge their death sentences if they successfully prove that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty at the time of their trials. The law was repealed in 2013.

Cases brought under the RJA

North Carolina v. Robinson: In April 2012, in a landmark decision, a North Carolina judge found statistical evidence of racial bias in the death penalty, and based on that finding commuted the death sentence of Marcus Robinson to life without parole. On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court did not find fault with the Michigan State University (MSU) study, but ruled that the State should have had more time to prepare for the hearing and to complete its own study. As of 2019, the State still has not come forward with a study that shows the absence of racial bias.

Claims of racial bias in the administration of the death penalty are supported by comprehensive studies of capital jury selection and capital charging and sentencing practices by researchers from (MSU) as well as other similar studies in North Carolina and other southern states.

The MSU studies show:

Racial Bias in Jury Selection: The study of jury selection found significant evidence that North Carolina prosecutors select juries in a racially biased manner. Prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove qualified Black jurors at more than twice the rate that they excluded white jurors. Of the 159 prisoners now on death row in North Carolina, 31 were sentenced by all-white juries, and another 38 had only one person of color on their sentencing juries.

Racial Bias in Prosecutorial Charging Decisions and Jury Sentencing: The study of capital charging and sentencing found that those who kill whites are more likely to get the death penalty than those who kill Blacks. The study found that a defendant is 2.6 times more likely to get the death penalty if the victim is white.

Read the studies:

Michigan State University College of Law - Report on Jury Selection Study

North Carolina Law Review: Race and Death Sentencing in North Carolina, 1980-2007

North Carolina v. Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters, and Quintel Augustine: In December 2012, a North Carolina judge held that prosecutors in these three defendants’ cases impermissibly relied upon race in its jury selection practices. The judge commuted all three defendants’ sentences to life without parole. On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the cases should not have been joined and that the State should have been granted additional time to prepare for the hearing.

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