In a ruling imbued with historic significance, the North Carolina Supreme Court has for the first time acknowledged pervasive discrimination in the state’s use of capital punishment and vacated a death-row prisoner’s death sentence under the since-repealed Racial Justice Act (RJA).

By a vote of 4-3, it held that Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks ’ April 2012 finding that race was a substantial factor in sentencing Marcus Robinson to death was tantamount to an acquittal of the death penalty, and that the reimposition of his death sentence after control of the legislature changed hands and legislators retroactively repealed the RJA violated his rights under the North Carolina state constitution.

“Today, we are not asked to pass on the wisdom of repealing a statutory mechanism for rooting out the insidious vestiges of racism in the implementation of our state’s most extreme punishment. That decision is for the General Assembly,” Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote for the majority. “Instead, this Court must decide whether the North Carolina Constitution allows for that repeal to be retroactive. We hold that it does not. … Once the trial court found that Robinson had proven all of the essential elements under the RJA to bar the imposition of the death penalty,” she wrote, “[he] was legally entitled to the imposition of a life sentence.”

Lawyers for Robinson and the more than 140 death-row prisoners who have filed Racial Justice Act claims in the state, hailed the ruling. “This is one of the most important decisions I’ve ever seen from our state Supreme Court,” said Gretchen Engel, Executive Director of North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “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.”

The History of the Racial Justice Act Litigation

In addressing Robinson’s case, the North Carolina Supreme Court noted that it was ruling on the application of “historic” legislation. The legislature, the court said, had recognized “the egregious legacy of the racially discriminatory application of the death penalty in this state” and had acted with the goal “to ensure that no person in this state is put to death because of the color of their skin.”

The court drew a direct link between lynching, segregation, and North Carolina’s discriminatory use of the death penalty. “The same racially oppressive beliefs that fueled segregation manifested themselves through public lynchings, the disproportionate application of the death penalty against African-American defendants, and the exclusion of African Americans from juries,” Chief Justice Beasley wrote. “Given the racially oppressive practices and beliefs that permeated every level of American society during the Jim Crow era, the constitutionally protected right of African-American defendants to be tried by a jury of their peers became increasingly important.”

“[E]qual protection to all must be given,” the court said, “not merely promised.” After a thirteen-day RJA hearing in the trial court, Robinson persuaded Judge Weeks that the promise had been illusory.

With two decades of data showing sustained systemic racial discrimination in jury selection in Cumberland County and across North Carolina in capital cases, Robinson persuaded Judge Weeks that race had played an impermissible role in his capital trial. His evidence showed that prosecutors were 2.26 times more likely to strike Black jurors than all other jurors, and after controlling for dozens of non-race factors that could potentially have caused the juror to be struck, prosecutors were still more than twice as likely to strike Black jurors as other jurors. He also presented evidence that the state’s appellate courts had refused to redress the issue, never in more than 100 cases finding that prosecutors had manufactured pretextual reasons for striking Black jurors, but ruling for the prosecution the two times the state had argued defense lawyers had impermissibly removed white jurors.

The court wrote that, “[o]nce implemented, the RJA worked as intended. Immediately, proceedings initiated pursuant to the Act revealed pervasive racial bias in capital sentencing in North Carolina. For defendant Marcus Reymond Robinson, the first condemned inmate to have a hearing pursuant to the RJA, the trial court found that he successfully proved that racial discrimination infected his trial and sentencing.”

In response, the General Assembly amended the RJA to make it more difficult for death-row prisoners to prove racial bias. Even then, Chief Justice Beasley noted, “the trial court held that the next three claimants [Christina Walters, Quintel Augustine, and Tilmon Golphin] met the higher standard and demonstrated that racial bias had infected their capital proceedings as well. With 100% of claimants successfully proving their entitlement to relief and with more than 100 additional RJA claims filed, the vast majority of death row inmates were on the precipice of an opportunity to individually demonstrate that the proceedings in which they were sentenced to death were fundamentally flawed by racial animus.”

Once again, the legislature intervened to prevent the RJA claims from going forward, this time by repealing the RJA and designating the repeal as retroactive. The four prisoners who had won their RJA claims were resentenced to death and the remaining prisoners were denied hearings on their claims. They appealed to the state supreme court.

On June 5, 2020, the court issued its rulings in the cases of death-row prisoners Andrew Ramseur and Rayford Burke, holding that “the retroactive application of the RJA Repeal violates the prohibition against ex post facto laws under the United States and North Carolina Constitutions.” It remanded their cases to the trial court to conduct hearings to determine whether their death sentences violated the Racial Justice Act. If the prisoners win those challenges, they will be resentenced to life without parole.

The court also invalidated the legislature’s retroactive application of earlier legislative amendments that had limited the types of evidence death-row prisoners could use to prove that race had been a substantial factor in their death sentences. Robinson’s appeal and the appeals of the other three successful RJA petitioners remained pending when Ramseur and Burke were decided.

The North Carolina Supreme Court’s Ruling in Marcus Robinson’s Case

The court based its decision in Robinson’s case on its interpretation of the Law of the Land Clause of the North Carolina constitution — a version of the British common-law protection against Double Jeopardy that predates the federal constitution. Under that doctrine, the court said, a defendant who has been acquitted of a charge, whether by a jury or by the court at trial or on appeal, cannot face future criminal liability on the same charge.

The majority likened the Racial Justice Act to an affirmative defense against the death penalty, saying that, while the prosecution had proven Robinson’s eligibility for execution, “the Act allowed Robinson to be acquitted of the death penalty by presenting evidence that racial discrimination infected his trial and capital sentencing proceedings.” It reasoned that, “[o]nce the trial court found that Robinson had proven all of the essential elements under the RJA to bar the imposition of the death penalty, … [he] was legally entitled to the imposition of a life sentence.” Judge Weeks’ ruling granting Robinson relief on his Racial Justice Act claim in 2012, the court said, “acquitted [him] of that capital sentence, jeopardy terminated, and any attempt by the State to reimpose the death penalty would be a violation of our state’s constitution.”

The court noted that, like Robinson, Walters, Augustine, and Golphin also had met their burdens of proving that race was a significant factor in their cases and had received judgments in their favor under the Racial Justice Act. The majority said that the legislature, by retroactively repealing the RJA after the four prisoners had won their claims, “is not only seeking another attempt at imposing a death sentence, it is seeking another attempt after having created a process which provided relief upon a showing of racial discrimination. If our constitution does not permit the State to use its power and resources over and over to obtain a conviction or impose the death penalty, it certainly does not allow the state to use that same power and resources to eliminate the remedy after a defendant has successfully proven his entitlement to that relief.”

Justice Sam Ervin, IV, joined by Justice Mark Davis, dissented, but made clear their vote on the case should not “be understood as expressing any doubt about the fundamental importance of the goals sought to be achieved by the Racial Justice Act or the pressing need to completely eradicate racial and all other forms of odious discrimination from our system of justice.” Nevertheless, Ervin wrote, “it seems clear to me that a trial court order granting relief pursuant to the Racial Justice Act and the entry of a related judgment of life imprisonment is not an unreviewable decision entitled to double jeopardy protection” and the application of double jeopardy protections on those grounds was foreclosed by the court’s original RJA decision in the case, returning it to the trial court for further evidentiary development. Had double jeopardy protections applied, Ervin said, the court would have had to enforce those rights in its prior decision.

Justice Paul Newby, who is running against Beasley in the November 2020 general election for Chief Justice, also dissented. While agreeing with Justice Ervin that a remand was necessary, he accused the majority of “judicial activism,” saying “[a]pparently, in their view, the law is whatever they say it is.” Citing the circumstances of the murders for which Walters, Augustine, and Golphin were convicted, but none of the evidence of racial discrimination in their cases, Newby wrote: “This Court’s decision today would seem to control the outcome of these cases as well.”

“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 veteran North Carolina capital defense lawyer Henderson Hill, who represents a number of RJA petitioners. “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.”


Paul Woolverton, N.C. Supreme Court pulls Racial Justice Act mur­der defen­dant off death row, The Fayetteville Observer, August 14, 2020; Bryan Anderson, NC death row inmate to instead serve life in prison, state Supreme Court rules, Associated Press, August 14, 2020; Rob Schofield, NC Supreme Court: Reimposing death penal­ty after Racial Justice Act repeal amounts to imper­mis­si­ble dou­ble jeop­ardy, Progressive Pulse Blog, NC Policy Watch, August 14, 2020; News Release, N.C. Supreme Court deci­sion says Racial Justice Act is key to end­ing death penal­ty racism, Center for Death Penalty Litigation, August 142020.

Read the North Carolina Supreme Court’s deci­sion in State v. Robinson.