Hope for Death Row Inmates With Court Ruling on N.C.’s Racial Justice Act

N.C. Supreme Court issued a major ruling affected the Racial Justice Act Friday. Image via N.C. Judicial Branch

By Sarah Ovaska

June 5, 2020

A ruling Friday by the N.C. Supreme Court found a repeal of the Racial Justice Act was unconstitutional,  paving the way for death row inmates to appeal their sentences.

The N.C. Supreme Court found the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, a state law that allowed death row inmates to argue racism contributed to their death sentences, was unconstitutional in a ruling issued Friday.

The court’s 6-1 rulings in State v. Ramseur and State v. Burke will resurrect attempts by more than 100 of North Carolina’s death row inmates to argue that racism contributed to their  prosecution, and have their sentences commuted to life sentences without parole. 

Death penalty opponents, including the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project which participated in the case, hailed the court’s decision.

“At a moment when people across the nation are taking to the streets to protest systemic racism in the criminal legal system, this ruling is particularly poignant,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, and an attorney involved with the case. “The court’s ruling, like the evidence in these cases, confirms what Americans have known for decades: Racism plays a starring role in determining who gets executed.” 

More than half of North Carolina’s current death row inmates are Black, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety. 

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The Racial Justice Act, passed by the state legislature in 2009, created a legal path for North Carolina’s death row inmates to argue that racism contributed to juries handing down death sentences. If a judge agreed, those death sentences could commuted to a lifetime behind bars. 

But the law was modified in 2012, and then repealed entirely in 2013, after Republications took over the state legislature and targeted policies enacted under prior Democratic leadership. 

The repeal was retroactive and cut short more than 100 pending appeals filed by the death row inmates under the provision of the Racial Justice Act. Three other inmates who had their death sentences commuted were returned to death row. 

Friday’s decision resurrects those appeals, while the cases regarding the inmates who had their sentences commuted are still pending in front of the N.C. Supreme Court, as reported by Melissa Boughton of N.C. Policy Watch. 

North Carolina is one of 28 states to still allow the death penalty in murder cases. The state has not executed anyone since 2006, when Samuel Flippen was executed for the 1994 killing of his stepdaughter.  There are 143 people remaining on death row, though the state has seen a marked decrease in death sentence in recent years. Three people, however, were sentenced to death sentences last year, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety. 


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