NC Supreme Court: Racial Justice Act repeal cannot be applied retroactively

By: - June 5, 2020 12:43 pm

Over 100 people incarcerated on death row who sought relief from the now-repealed Racial Justice Act (RJA) for racial discrimination during their trials can have their day in court, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In an 80-page 6-1 opinion released Friday, with lone Republican Justice Paul Newby dissenting, the high court ruled that the repeal of the RJA cannot be applied retroactively to the cases that were pending.

The law, for a brief time, allowed individuals sentenced to death to seek sentences of life without parole if they could prove racial bias or discrimination was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty in their case.

At the time of the repeal in 2013, about 130 petitions were pending for relief under the RJA — roughly 90% of death row cases at that time. After the repeal, those individuals with pending motions were no longer permitted to move forward with their discrimination claims, including Andrew Darrin Ramseur, whose case is now the basis for the Supreme Court’s landmark opinion.

A Black man, Ramseur was found guilty by an all-white jury in Iredell County on two counts of first-degree murder of two white people and one count of robbery with a dangerous weapon. He alleged in his appeal to the high court that the likelihood of a death sentence in his case was greater because of substantial pre-trial publicity and public comments. These include the distribution to media outlets of surveillance footage of the crime, inflammatory media coverage of the case, and the prevalence of overtly racist comments and discussion on community internet blogs and websites.

A trial court rendered Ramseur’s pending claims void after the repeal of the Racial Justice Act. It and dismissed his claims without hearing evidence of the racial bias and discrimination present at his trial.

Justice Anita Earls wrote the opinion in the case, which holds that applying the repeal retroactively violates the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws, or laws that change the legal consequences of actions that were committed before the enactment of the law.

Earls writes that she and concurring justices express no opinion on the ultimate merits of Ramseur’s RJA claims, nor those of any other capital defendant, and leaves those issues to the trial courts to adjudicate. “We note that our analysis under the Ex Post Facto Clauses of the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions addresses a question purely of law and applies equally to anyone in the same circumstances as defendant — specifically, any capital defendant who filed a motion for appropriate relief under the Original RJA,” the opinion states. “With respect to this class of individuals, the RJA Repeal cannot, consistent with constitutional guarantees, retroactively apply to void their pending RJA claims.”

The opinion does state that the trial court in Ramseur “at a minimum erred as a threshold matter in not conducting an evidentiary hearing on defendant’s claims.” Ramseur’s claims are sufficient under the RJA to trigger an evidentiary hearing, it states.

Earls also authored a similar opinion Friday in another pending RJA case, State v. Rayford Lewis Burke. That was a 5-1 opinion, with Justice Sam Ervin recused and Newby dissenting.

Burke was convicted in Iredell County of one count of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1993. A trial court also denied his RJA claims without an evidentiary hearing — an error, according to the high court’s opinion. Newby, in his dissent in Ramseur, which he also cites in Burke, stated the repeal plainly does not qualify as an ex post facto law because it left the defendant in “precisely the same legal situation” as the one he occupied at the time of his trial.

“When properly viewed, the General Assembly intended the RJA to provide a procedural mechanism by which a defendant could collaterally attack a capital sentence,” the Ramseur dissent states. “The General Assembly did not intend to make a substantive change to the death penalty sentencing law. As such, the General Assembly had the constitutional authority subsequently to amend it and repeal it.”

There are four RJA cases still pending at the high court that involve individuals who received relief under the RJA — they were granted life without parole but then sent back to death row after the repeal of the law. Read the full opinions from the high court below.

This is a breaking news story and could be updated throughout the day.

Disclosure: Rick Glazier, executive director of the North Carolina Justice Center, the parent organization of NC Policy Watch, was involved in legislative efforts to resist the repeal of the RJA while a member of the state House and the successful litigation described in this story.

State v Ramseur Opinion (Text)

State v Burke opinion (Text)

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Melissa Boughton

Melissa Boughton worked as the Courts and Law Reporter at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020.