Another Step Toward Criminal Justice Reform: Inmates in North Carolina Have Chance to Prove Racism Affected Their Sentences

BELatina North Carolina
Photo Credit Jorge Salcedo

In the midst of the social awakening against structural racism, the North Carolina Supreme Court has taken the first step toward what could be a comprehensive criminal justice reform.

Last Friday, the body ruled that more than 100 death row inmates would have the opportunity to prove their convictions were unfounded because of racism, TIME reported.

While the defendants will have the opportunity to be re-sentenced to life in prison without parole, this is a historic victory for human rights organizations.

Thanks to years of legislative and legal proceedings surrounding the so-called Racial Justice Act (RJA) passed in 2009, and eventually repealed in 2013, men like Andrew Ramseur will have a second chance to live.

The 31-year-old Black man is one of the defendants on death row who filed a lawsuit under the RJA before it was repealed, and whose allegations should now be heard, according to the state Supreme Court ruling.

For many, the decision coincides with the outcry from the streets against the country’s endogenous racism.

“This is just an incredibly poignant time for the court to announce this ruling,” Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, tells TIME. “The death penalty, as we all know, is affected by racial bias… [This ruling] ensures we will be able to continue our journey as North Carolinians to really confront the legacy of race in capital trials.”

The court decided in a 6-1 vote that both Ramseur and Rayford Burke might also present additional evidence excluded by the prosecutors during their trial, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation explained.

“Today’s ruling is an important step forward in North Carolina’s ability to create a more fair and equal justice system,” Henderson Hill, senior staff attorney on the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, said in a statement on Friday. “The evidence our clients presented of racial bias was clear and powerful. Today, the court has affirmed that we cannot and will not put it back in the box.

Although the body has not decided the cases of four other RJA defendants, Marcus Robinson, Quintel Augustine, Christina Walter, and Timon Golphin, the ruling in favor of Ramseur and Burke marks an important precedent for the cases to come.

Similarly, this decision coincided with Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s response to the protests against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s death with “a candid admission” that North Carolina’s courts have helped perpetuate racial disparities.

“We must come together to firmly and loudly commit to the declaration that all people are created equal, and we must do more than just speak that truth,” Beasley said. “We must live it every day in our courtrooms.”