The North Carolina Supreme Court has struck down the state legislature’s attempted retroactive repeal of the state’s Racial Justice Act (RJA), restoring the rights of approximately 140 death-row prisoners to seek redress of death sentences that they had claimed were substantially affected by racial bias.

The Court issued its rulings in the cases of death-row prisoners Andrew Ramseur (pictured, left) and Rayford Burke (pictured, right) on June 5, 2020, 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 defendants win their challenges, they will be resentenced to life without parole.

The court also invalidated the 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. Those amendments, enacted in 2012 after death-row prisoner Marcus Robinson had overturned his death sentence under the RJA, also violated state and federal prohibitions against ex post facto laws, the court ruled.

Trial courts had overturned the death sentences of four prisoners under the RJA — Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine — before the act was repealed. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court vacated their sentence reversals to provide prosecutors an additional opportunity to present expert testimony to challenge a statewide study of racial bias in jury selection. Before those new hearings could take place, the legislature repealed the statute altogether and the trial courts canceled the hearings and reinstated the prisoners’ death sentences. Their challenges to the reinstatement of their death sentences are still pending before the North Carolina Supreme Court.

“We’re a nation of laws, and when people have trials, they have to be fair trials, and part of a fair trial is that you don’t get a harsher punishment or a whiter jury because of the color of your skin,” said Gretchen Engel, Executive Director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation (CDPL) and one of Burke’s attorneys. “This is a momentous decision that sends a clear message: Our state’s highest court will not allow North Carolina to ignore evidence that racism has infected the death penalty. This was also an urgently needed decision as our state and our nation confront a long history of racism. The death penalty is the apex of a criminal legal system that has failed people of color.”

“In light of decades, if not centuries, of mistreatment and brutalization of Black citizens at the hands of America’s criminal system, today’s decision to take the death penalty off the table when there is evidence of racial bias is just one small but important step toward achieving the broad-based reform needed in North Carolina, and across the country,” said Henderson Hill, an attorney with the ACLU who represents RJA defendants. “It’s something to celebrate, but also a reminder that we must keep working for justice.”

North Carolina’s landmark 2009 Racial Justice Act permitted death-row prisoners to challenge their death sentences by presenting evidence, including statistical studies, that racial bias was a significant factor that contributed to their death sentences. In the four years following the law’s passage, more than 130 prisoners filed such challenges.

The law prompted a study of jury selection in the state that revealed that prosecutors systemically exercised their discretionary strikes to exclude Black prospective jurors from serving in capital cases. The study reviewed 20 years of capital prosecutions, finding racially discriminatory jury selection practices that exhibited “remarkable consistency across time and jurisdiction.” Statewide and in most North Carolina counties, prosecutors peremptorily struck more than half of all Black jurors, while accepting three-quarters of all other jurors. The probability that this pattern of discriminatory strikes would occur by chance, the study found, was less than one in ten trillion.

After Robinson won his RJA claim in the trial court, control of the legislature and governorship changed parties. In 2012, the now-Republican legislature retroactively amended the statute to scale back the circumstances in which relief could be granted. The Amended RJA barred statewide evidence of discrimination, limiting statistical proof of discrimination to cases tried in the county or judicial district in which the crime had occurred. It also constricted the time period in which evidence of historical discrimination could be assessed, limiting proof to cases tried in the ten years before the crime and two years after the imposition of sentence. The new law also required the prisoner to present some evidence of discrimination in his or her particular case, in addition to any statistical evidence.

After Golphin, Robinson, Walters, and Augustine won their claims under the new standard, the legislature retroactively repealed the entire Racial Justice Act.

Both Burke and Ramseur, who are Black, had filed RJA claims presenting disturbing evidence of racial bias at their trials, in addition to the statistical evidence of systemic statewide discrimination in jury selection. Both men were convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries. During closing arguments at Burke’s 1993 trial, the prosecutor referred to Burke as “a big, Black bull.” At Ramseur’s 2010 trial, sheriffs blocked off several rows of seating behind the defense table with yellow crime scene tape. When his lawyers argued that the tape made Ramseur appear dangerous, the judge refused their motion to remove it, saying, “I’ll let the sheriffs handle the security. That’s the way they do it here, and that’s the way it will be done.” The tape blocked the seats where the defendant’s family usually sits, forcing Ramseur’s family members to sit in the back of the courtroom, while the white family members of the victim sat in the front row behind the prosecution.


Madeleine Carlisle, N.C. Supreme Court Rules Over 100 Death Row Inmates Have Chance to Prove Racism Affected Their Sentences, Time, June 5, 2020; Melissa Boughton, PW exclu­sive: Inside the state Supreme Court’s land­mark Racial Justice Act rul­ing, NC Policy Watch, June 6, 2020; Josh Shaffer and Will Doran, Death row defen­dants can argue racism infect­ed their cas­es, NC Supreme Court rules, Raleigh News & Observer, June 5, 2020; News Release, Landmark N.C. Supreme Court rul­ing brings death penal­ty racism into spot­light, Center for Death Penalty Litigation, June 52020.

Read the North Carolina Supreme Court’s opin­ions in State v. Ramseur and State v. Burke