by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The N.C. Supreme Court has revived the now-repealed Racial Justice Act to allow two death row inmates to challenge their sentences. The court’s lone Republican offered the only dissents in the two cases released this morning.
In State v. Ramseur, the court ruled, 6-1, that both an amendment of the RJA in 2012 and its repeal in 2013 amounted to an unconstitutional ex post facto law when applied to inmates with active RJA claims. The decision reverses a 2014 ruling from Iredell County Superior Court.
The now-repealed act had allowed death row inmates to seek relief based on the argument that “race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty,” according to Justice Anita Earls’ majority opinion.
Defendant Andrew Darrin Ramseur had filed his RJA claim after his 2010 first-degree murder convictions in two killings. Ramseur’s claims were active when the legislature changed and then dropped the law. Writing for the majority, Earls finds:
[B]y retroactively eliminating the RJA’ss ubstantive claim and its accompanying relief, the RJA Repeal increases the severity of the standard of punishment attached to the crime of first-degree murder and deprives defendant of a defense to the “nature or amount of the punishment imposed for its commission.” As such, the retroactive application of the RJA Repeal to defendant violates the prohibition against ex post facto laws.
It is within the purview of the General Assembly to pass such ameliorative laws granting potential relief from crimes and punishment to defendants for crimes already committed, and, having done so, it cannot then withdraw that relief consistent with the Ex Post Facto Clause, which “restricts governmental power by restraining arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation.” …
Justice Paul Newby dissented.
The repeal plainly does not qualify as an ex post facto law because it left defendant in precisely the same legal situation as the one he occupied on 16 December 2007, when, according to a jury, he murdered Jennifer Lee Vincek and Jeffrey Robert Peck. The repeal did not subject defendant to more serious or additional charges for past conduct, nor did it increase the punishment in effect on 16 December 2007. When properly viewed, the General Assembly intended the RJA to provide a procedural mechanism by which a defendant could collaterally attack a capital sentence. The General Assembly did not intend to make a substantive change to the death penalty sentencing law. As such, the General Assembly had the constitutional authority subsequently to amend it and repeal it.
Newby didn’t stop there.
Viewed more broadly, though, this case is about who should determine the future of the death penalty in North Carolina. Under our system of government, the obvious answer to this question is that ultimate authority over death penalty policy resides with the people of this State. It is for them to determine whether North Carolina will have a death penalty and to establish, within constitutional bounds, the circumstances in which that penalty may be imposed. Ordinarily, the people exercise this power indirectly through their elected representatives in the General Assembly.
The majority’s interpretation of the RJA cedes significant portions of the people’s authority over death penalty policy to the courts. In the majority’s view, the law empowers a judge to vacate a defendant’s death sentence based on statistical evidence that race had been a significant factor in other death penalty proceedings in the county, prosecutorial district, judicial division,or the State as a whole, regardless of the role of race in defendant’s own capital proceeding. This interpretation could be viewed as granting policymaking power to the judiciary to effectively eliminate the death penalty in North Carolina. By invalidating the RJA repeal, the majority does more than merely misapply the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws. It also intrudes upon the right of the people, in the form of their elected representatives, to decide death penalty policy for this State.
The Supreme Court reached a similar result in its 5-1 decision in State v. Burke. In this case, the majority allowed defendant Rayford Lewis Burke to continue his RJA appeal. Burke has lived on death row since 1993 and lost two previous appeals to the state’s highest court.
Earls wrote again for the majority, citing much of the same argument she used in Ramseur. Newby once again penned a solo dissent.
In January 1992, in cold blood in front of three eye witnesses, defendant shot and killed the victim, Timothy Morrison, because Morrison had testified against him in an earlier murder case. The jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder. In the sentencing phase the jury found that there were two statutory aggravating factors: that defendant had previously committed a violent offense and that he murdered someone who was a former witness against him. The jury sentenced defendant to death. …
… This Court now reinstates defendant’s RJA claims that the trial court previously dismissed and denied.