A Recent Historic Victory
In State v. Ramseur, State v. Burke, and State v. Robinson, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued long-awaited decisions involving the state's Racial Justice Act (RJA). The RJA was the first statute in the nation that was drafted and used to vacate death sentences based on evidence that those sentences were infected with racial bias.
I'm writing to share news of a recent, historic victory in the fight for racial justice in the context of criminal legal systems—a victory in which NAPD's Amicus Committee played a role. I also write to celebrate the outstanding work of UC College of Law alums Caitlyn Idoine and Kristi Murphy (class of 2019) and Ryan Goellner (class of 2015) in helping to achieve that victory. As students, they devoted many hours to researching and drafting amicus briefs in support of the prevailing parties. Lead counsel praised the briefs as contributing to the successful outcome. Because the litigation illustrates both the long arc of justice and the presumptuousness of despair (two key lessons that I try to drive home to my students), I offer a bit more detail below.
In State v. Ramseur, State v. Burke, and State v. Robinson, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued long-awaited decisions involving the state's Racial Justice Act (RJA). The RJA was the first statute in the nation that was drafted and used to vacate death sentences based on evidence that those sentences were infected with racial bias. The statute's key innovations were to allow the use of statistical evidence of systemic bias instead of requiring direct proof of intentional discrimination, and to offer the possibility of obtaining statewide relief based on evidence of systemic bias. Thus, the RJA was North Carolina's answer to McCleskey v. Kemp. In that case,the Supreme Court adopted a “hands-off” approach to what Justice Scalia conceded in a bench memo to be indisputable evidence of racial bias in criminal legal systems.
Mr. Robinson was one of the first death row inmates to receive a hearing on his RJA motion. The trial judge who vacated his death sentence under the RJA did so in a lengthy opinion with extensive, detailed fact-findings based on hours of expert and lay testimony as well as documentary evidence of systemic and intentional prosecutorial discrimination in capital jury selection processes. That opinion is available here:https://sentencing.typepad.com/files/marcus-robinson-rja-order.pdf. As required by the RJA, Mr. Robinson was resentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
Shortly thereafter, a new legislative majority repealed the RJA and made the repeal retroactive. Mr. Robinson was sent back to death row. Mr. Ramseur and Mr. Burke, like the overwhelming majority of other death row inmates who had filed RJA motions but had not received a hearing, no longer had that avenue to litigate their claims. Mr. Ramseur, Mr. Burke, and Mr. Robinson appealed, contending (among other things) that retroactive repeal of the RJA violated Ex Post Facto and double jeopardy protections. During the appeal of those cases, Ryan assisted in drafting an amicus brief on behalf of African American jurors whom prosecutors had struck from capital juries based on race, and Caitlyn and Kristi assisted in drafting an amicus brief on behalf of the National Association for Public Defense.
Earlier this summer, In Ramseur and Burke, the state Supreme Court found Ex Post Facto clause violations in both retroactive application of the repeal and substantive aspects of the repeal itself. Therefore, every person on North Carolina's death row who filed an RJA motion must be allowed to litigate those claims. Absent an intervening settlement to replace death sentences with the RJA-prescribed alternative of life imprisonment without parole, litigants will present abundant evidence of case-specific and statewide racial bias in North Carolina's capital jury selection processes, like that which persuaded the RJA hearing judge to vacate Mr. Robinson's death sentences. Last Friday, in Robinson, the Court held that the trial court order vacating his death sentence under the RJA was a final order, and therefore that retroactive repeal of the RJA violated his state constitutional right to be free from double jeopardy
All of this is to say that we now enter a new phase in a very long struggle. This new phase builds upon decades of relentless efforts by attorneys and community members to push criminal legal policies and processes closer to the principles of equal dignity and liberty that are central to the rule of law. It has been an honor to work with NAPD and with UC College of Law students in advancing that cause.