by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled 4-3 that a prisoner who used the Racial Justice Act to escape death row is exempt from that act’s repeal. The prisoner, convicted murderer Marcus Reymond Robinson, will serve a life sentence without parole.
The now-repealed RJA had allowed death-row inmates to challenge their sentences based on statistical claims of racial bias.
Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote the main opinion, joined by Justices Anita Earls and Michael Morgan.
With 100% of claimants successfully proving their entitlement to relief and with more than 100 additional RJA claims filed, the vast majority of death row inmates were on the precipice of an opportunity to individually demonstrate that the proceedings in which they were sentenced to death were fundamentally flawed by racial animus. Rather than allowing these proceedings to follow their course, the General Assembly repealed the Act. The repeal was made retroactive: Robinson and the three other defendants who had already proven that their capital sentences were based on racially biased proceedings were returned to death row to await execution.
Today, we are not asked to pass on the wisdom of repealing a statutory mechanism for rooting out the insidious vestiges of racism in the implementation of our state’s most extreme punishment. That decision is for the General Assembly. Instead, this Court must decide whether the North Carolina Constitution allows for that repeal to be retroactive. We hold that it does not.
Justice Robin Hudson added the fourth vote in Robinson’s favor. She wrote in a concurring opinion that concerns about double jeopardy blocked any review of the defendant’s successful RJA ruling.
The case also generated two dissents. Justice Paul Newby, Beasley’s opponent in the 2020 chief justice’s election and the only Republican on the court, offered a solo dissent.
As a monarch, King Louis XVI once famously said, “C’est légal, parce que je le veux” (“It is legal because it is my will.”) Today, four justices of this Court adopt the same approach to the law, violating the norms of appellate review and disregarding or distorting precedent as necessary to reach their desired result. Apparently, in their view, the law is whatever they say it is.
Newby would not return Robinson to death row.
[W]e should be returning this case to the trial court for a full hearing on the merits of defendant’s RJA claim at a proceeding where the State has a fair chance to respond. Instead of doing the legally correct thing, the majority opinion picks its preferred destination and reshapes the law to get there. Inasmuch as today’s decision cannot be justified on any legal basis, I respectfully dissent.
Justice Sam Ervin dissented in a separate opinion joined by Justice Mark Davis. Those two justices also would have sent Robinson’s case back to the trial court. They reject the notion that a ruling against the defendant’s RJA victory would have amounted to double jeopardy.
[I]t seems clear to me that a trial court order granting relief pursuant to the Racial Justice Act and the entry of a related judgment of life imprisonment is not an unreviewable decision entitled to double jeopardy protection, with there being no support in the relevant decisions of this Court or the Supreme Court or in the statutory provisions governing our review of lower court decisions in criminal cases. As a result, I am unable to join the Court’s decision.