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NC Supreme Court rules death row inmates can present evidence of racial bias in trials

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled 6-1 Friday that two death row inmates can present evidence that race tainted their trials, a significant decision for many prisoners on death row in the state.

In the decision, the justices ruled that two of the state’s death row inmates, Rayford Burke and Andrew Ramseur, were entitled to hearings to present evidence that prosecutors intentionally excluded African American citizens from their juries and that racism tainted their sentencing, according to a news release. 

This means that all death row inmates in the state who filed claims under the N.C. Racial Justice Act before its 2013 repeal are similarly entitled to present their evidence in court. 

Burke and Ramseur had initially presented their evidence under the Racial Justice Act, a 2009 state law passed by a Democratic majority that allowed death row inmates to challenge their sentences if they could show that racial bias influenced their sentencing. The act was later repealed in 2013 by a Republican-controlled legislature.

In 2015, the state Supreme Court ruled that four inmates who initially had their death sentences commuted to life in prison under the Racial Justice Act needed new trials. A judge then dismissed all four cases in 2017, stating that since the Racial Justice Act had been repealed, there were no grounds for the proceedings to continue.

Donald Beskind, professor of the practice of law, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that “today was a good day for racial justice in North Carolina” as the court has now ruled that the legislature’s "punitive repeal" of the Racial Justice Act was unconstitutional. 

“No person should die in North Carolina if race played a role in them getting a death sentence,” he wrote. “The death penalty is the most extreme result in a criminal justice system that has brutalized Black Americans for generations. The Supreme Court’s focus on the system’s disparate treatment of African Americans marks, I hope, the beginning of a new era for equal justice under the law in North Carolina.”

Beskind added that Black citizens have long been denied the right to serve on juries and all defendants have been denied the right to have a jury drawn from a “representative cross-section” of the community, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. He wrote that the Racial Justice Act had sought to vindicate those rights for individuals who had received the death sentence.

Justice Anita Earls, who authored the decision, wrote that the decision was more than two individual defendants, as harm from racial discrimination in criminal cases “undermines the integrity of our judicial system,” according to the release.

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