North Carolina Supreme Court Finds the Repeal of Racial Justice Act Unconstitutional

June 5, 2020 12:30 pm

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DURHAM, N.C. – North Carolina’s Supreme Court issued a sweeping order today in North Carolina v. Ramseur, restoring the full protections of the Racial Justice Act for people who filed claims before the law was repealed in 2013.

The state passed RJA in 2009, allowing defendants to strike the death penalty from their cases if they could show racial discrimination was a factor in their prosecution. Following the passage of RJA, Marcus Robinson became the first person to successfully litigate his claim of racial bias under the law. After his victory, the North Carolina legislature repealed the RJA and attempted to make that repeal retroactive to everyone with pending claims and Robinson. Today’s ruling ensures that none of the individuals who had filed claims can be executed without the opportunity to prove the role of racial bias in their cases.

“At a moment when people across the nation are taking to the streets to protest systemic racism in the criminal legal system, this ruling is particularly poignant,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “The court’s ruling, like the evidence in these cases, confirms what Americans have known for decades: Racism plays a starring role in determining who gets executed. The death penalty in the U.S. is the direct outgrowth of our nation’s shameful legacy of lynching. It normalizes the draconian sentences that fuel our mass incarceration crisis and makes the racism and errors of the criminal legal system permanent. It must be repealed across the nation if we are to truly address our racist history and build a justice system worthy of its name.”

“Today’s ruling is an important step forward in North Carolina’s ability to create a more fair and equal justice system,” said Henderson Hill, senior staff attorney on the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project. “The evidence our clients presented of racial bias was clear and powerful. Today, the court has affirmed that we cannot and will not put it back in the box. When RJA passed in 2009, North Carolina took the first step and examined a shameful truth about our criminal legal system. Today, the court has confirmed we will take the next step, bear witness to that racism, and do something to rectify the tremendous harm it has caused.”

Evidence uncovered in the RJA cases showed that racial bias in North Carolina’s death penalty is systematic, not the work of a few isolated bad actors. This evidence included: a prosecutor who referred to a Black defendant as a “big black bull;” a Black defendant whose trial was compromised when his family was barred from sitting near the front of the courtroom by highly prejudicial crime scene tape; derogatory and demeaning questioning of Black jurors, including asking whether a juror could read; and discriminatory, handwritten prosecutor notes about prospective jurors, like that one Black woman could serve because she was “from a respectable BLK family.”

The decision is online, here.

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