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North Carolina Death Row Inmates Have Chance to Prove Racism Affected Their Sentences

On behalf of Randall & Stump, PLLC in Civil Rights, Criminal Defense on Friday, August 7, 2020

North Carolina Death Row Inmates have chance to Prove Racism Affected Their Sentences

In a significant ruling, the North Carolina Supreme Court says individuals on death have the opportunity to prove racism affected their sentences and transition to life without parole.

Black Lives Matter (BLM) and related protests are happening across the country in response to police brutality and killings. The call of these protests is to reform, or in some cases, dismantle police departments. The basis for such a call to action is the significant number of deaths resulting from police officer conduct, as well as policing and legal tactics that result in more Black people being arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to maximum penalties.

The recent decision is not a direct result of the current BLM protests, though it’s timely. Under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which lawmakers repealed in 2013, over 100 incarcerated persons have the chance to alter their death sentences to life without parole. But to escape the death penalty, they’ll have to prove racism played a part in the extreme sentence they received.

Though there is a great deal of evidence to support claims of racism in policing and the criminal justice system, it is still a tall order. Prisoners fighting for resentencing shouldn’t work alone. It benefits them to partner with an experienced criminal defense and appeals attorney.

Inmates Filed Claims Under the Racial Justice Act

In 2009, North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act. The Act allowed individuals on death row to be resentenced if they were able to prove race was a significant factor in receiving the death penalty. In establishing race was a factor, they were allowed to use local and state statistics. While many individuals don’t believe or admit to factoring race into decisions, numbers reveal it happens. Statistics regarding convictions and sentences can reveal racial bias.

The issue at hand lies in the Act’s 2013 repeal. Once lawmakers repealed the law, courts suspended any pending claims. Incarcerated persons who had filed a claim but had not yet argued their case, were not given hearings.

Andrew Ramseur, 31, filed the lawsuit the state Supreme Court recently decided. The Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for the Act’s repeal to halt Ramseur’s and other prisoner’s pending claims. About 135 people can now demand a resentencing hearing.

Racism in Ramseur’s Trial

Ramseur can point to several issues related to race that took place during his trial for murder in 2010.

When Ramseur arrived in court, he and his lawyers discovered several rows directly behind the defense table were cordoned off with yellow police tape. His family members, who are also Black, were forced to sit several rows back. The victim’s family, who are white, were allowed to sit directly behind the prosecution table. Ramseur and his lawyers believe the difference made Ramseur look like a danger to others.

An all-white jury convicted Ramseur. Prosecutors succeeded in removing all Black potential jurors during voir dire. For perspective: Iredell County, where the trial took place, is 12 percent Black, 8 percent Latino, nearly 3 percent Asian, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander, and 2 percent mixed race.

Relevant North Carolina Statistics

Ramseur and other people on death row can point to alarming statistics. In death penalty trials in North Carolina, prosecutors were more than twice as likely to remove Black potential jurors as white potential jurors, according to The Marshall Project. Another statistic: In North Carolina, murders of white victims were more than twice as likely to result in the death penalty than murders of Black victims, even when cases were similar.

Some Individuals Have a Second Chance at Resentencing

The Act’s repeal in 2013 caused other issues, as well. Four individuals achieved resentencing under the Act in 2012. Tim Golphin, Marcus Robinson, and Quintel Augustine are all Black, and Christina Walters is Lumbee and Cherokee Indian.

In 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that they each needed new evidentiary hearings. Then in 2017, a judge threw out their cases because the Act had been repealed. Each person’s sentence reverted from life without parole back to the death penalty.

Golphin, Robinson, Walter, and Augustine have filed claims with the state Supreme Court, which the court has yet to decide. The outcome in Ramseur’s case, though, seems to mean they will have a chance at a new hearing to prove race contributed to their sentences.

The North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision gives new hope to many incarcerated persons facing the death penalty. These individuals have the opportunity to show in court that racism led to their sentences. Not only does the chance for new evidentiary hearings give them new hope, but it also might be a step in the right direction. If over 100 prisoners can prove racism is a problem in the North Carolina criminal justice system, it could be strong evidence that laws and procedures need to change.

But a new hearing is not a guarantee that their sentences will change. Incarcerated individuals who now have the right to a new hearing will need to gather accurate statistics and other evidence of racism as well as directly connect it to their trials.