Just before Christmas, the Supreme Court of North Carolina decided the Racial Justice Act cases that were argued back in April 2014. Rather than ruling on the merits, the court remanded the cases for further proceedings, concluding that the State should have been granted a continuance to allow it to respond to the inmates’ statistical study of jury selection across the state in capital cases.
The RJA. The Racial Justice Act was enacted in 2009. Generally, the Act allowed a capital defendant to attempt to establish, through statistical or other evidence, that race played a significant factor in capital cases in the state or a relevant political subdivision thereof, including in a defendant’s own case. The original RJA clearly went beyond the scope of existing constitutional protections against racial discrimination in criminal proceedings. Most of North Carolina’s death row inmates, of all races, filed claims under the Act.
The Act was amended in 2012. The amendment curtailed the protections provided by the Act, though the exact scope of the amended RJA is not completely clear. The original and amended version of the Act are discussed in detail in the North Carolina Capital Case Law Handbook.
The cases. The court ruled on four cases, all involving post-conviction claims filed by inmates sentenced to death in Cumberland County.
- Marcus Robinson was sentenced to death in 1994 for killing 17-year-old Erick Tornbloom. In April 2012, Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks found, inter alia, that Robinson met his burden under the RJA of showing discrimination in jury selection in capital cases, and ordered his sentence modified to life in prison without parole.
- Quintel Augustine was sentenced to death in 2002 for killing Fayetteville police officer Roy Turner. Tilmon Golphin was sentenced to death in 1998 for killing two law enforcement officers during a traffic stop. Christina Walters was sentenced to death in 2000 for killing two young women as part of a gang initiation. In December 2012, after a consolidated hearing, Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks found, inter alia, that each of the three inmates met his or her burden under the RJA of showing discrimination in jury selection in capital cases, and ordered the inmates’ sentences modified to life in prison without parole.
The State appealed each case to the state supreme court.
The order in Robinson’s case focused on a statistical study concerning the State’s use of peremptory challenges during jury selection in North Carolina capital cases over a 20-year period. The study, on which Robinson and his attorneys relied, concluded that “prosecutors struck eligible black venire members at about 2.5 times the rate they struck eligible venire members who were not black,” with significant disparities remaining even after controlling for pertinent variables. It is available online here.
The supreme court explained that “[r]espondent gave petitioner all of the data used for the study in May 2011 and a report summarizing the study’s findings in July 2011. Respondent then provided the final version of the study to petitioner in December 2011, approximately one month before the hearing on respondent’s motion began.” The State sought a continuance “to collect additional data from prosecutors throughout the state and to address respondent’s study.”
Judge Weeks denied the continuance. The supreme court concluded that this was error in light of the complexity of the issue and the fact that “[c]ontinuing this matter to give petitioner more time would have done no harm to respondent, whose remedy under the Act was a life sentence without the possibility of parole.”
The order in the Augustine/Golphin/Walters case states that the denial of the continuance in the Robinson proceeding “infected the trial court’s decision” in the three additional cases as well. Further, the court stated without elaboration that “the trial court erred when it joined these three cases for an evidentiary hearing.”
In both orders, the court expressed no opinion on the merits of the inmates’ claims. In both orders, the court mentioned the possibility of further studies, including the trial court appointing its own expert to conduct a statistical study.
Remanded, but to whom? Judge Weeks, who decided these cases in the first instance, has retired. The supreme court remanded the cases “to the senior resident superior court judge of Cumberland County for reconsideration of respondents’ motions for appropriate relief.”
Judge Jim Ammons is the senior resident superior court judge in Cumberland County. He may keep the cases or assign them to another judge. Judge Ammons was a prosecutor before becoming a judge. Whether he will be more receptive to the State’s arguments than Judge Weeks was, should he retain the cases, remains to be seen.
Impact of legislative repeal. The RJA was repealed in 2013. S.L. 2013-154. The General Assembly sought to make the repeal retroactive:
[T]his section [repealing the RJA] is retroactive and applies to any motion for appropriate relief filed pursuant to [the RJA] prior to the effective date of this act. All motions filed pursuant to [the RJA] prior to the effective date of this act are void.
However, there was one exception to the retroactive abolition of the RJA:
This section does not apply to a court order resentencing a petitioner to life imprisonment without parole pursuant to [the RJA] prior to the effective date of this act if the order is affirmed upon appellate review and becomes a final Order issued by a court of competent jurisdiction. This section is applicable in any case where a court resentenced a petitioner to life imprisonment without parole pursuant to [the RJA] prior to the effective date of this act, and the Order is vacated upon appellate review by a court of competent jurisdiction.
The superior court will need to decide whether the repeal of the RJA affects the inmates’ claims. The supreme court vacated Judge Weeks’ orders, and the retroactivity provision of the repeal provides that the repeal is effective “in any case where a court resentenced a petitioner to life imprisonment without parole pursuant to [the RJA] prior to [the repeal] and the Order is vacated upon appellate review.” Based on this, the State may argue that the inmates’ MARs are void.
On the other hand, the inmates may argue that they had a vested right to proceed under the RJA and that the repeal cannot constitutionally be applied to them. They may also argue that the supreme court’s statement that it was remanding the case for “reconsideration of respondents’ motions for appropriate relief,” and its remarks regarding additional studies, constitutes an order to decide the case on the merits.
More questions than answers. In the end, this disposition of the cases does not address the proper interpretation of the RJA or the amended RJA, and does not directly address whether inmates have a vested right to proceed under the RJA even after the repeal. In other words, it leaves unanswered the most prominent questions about the RJA. Those looking for definitive answers may have to wait until the next time the supreme court considers the RJA.