In a sweeping decision released Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that over 100 death row inmates have the opportunity to prove racism affected their sentences because they had filed a claim under the state’s Racial Justice Act (RJA) before it was repealed in 2013. If the defendants win their hearings, they’ll be re-sentenced to life without parole.
The ruling comes after years of legislative and legal proceedings over the RJA. Passed in 2009, the Act allowed North Carolina death row inmates to be re-sentenced to life without parole if they could prove race played a significant factor in their death sentence.
Andrew Ramseur, a 31-year-old black man, is the plaintiff in Friday’s state Supreme Court case North Carolina v. Ramseur. He is one of the death row defendants who had filed a RJA claim prior to the Act’s 2013 repeal but was subsequently never given a hearing. On Friday, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the RJA’s repeal to have impacted his and other cases that were already pending.
The ruling comes amid mass protests across the U.S. to demand an end to systemic racism and justice for the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
“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.”
When he arrived for his trial in 2010, Ramseur’s lawyers were alarmed to find the seats directly behind him in the courtroom, where a defendant’s family usually sit, had been blocked off with yellow crime scene tape. While the sheriff said the tape was for Ramseur’s safety, his lawyers argue it made him look dangerous before the jury. According to Ramseur’s brief, the court denied a motion to move the tape, saying “I’ll let the sheriffs handle the security. That’s the way they do it here, and that’s the way it will be done.”
The ruling also affects four defendants — Tilmon Golphin, Marcus Robinson, Christina Walters and Quintel Augustine — who had each previously been re-sentenced from death row to life without parole in 2012 under the RJA. (Golphin, Robinson and Augustine are African American and Walters is Lumbee and Cherokee Indian.) In 2015, however, the state Supreme Court ruled that they needed new evidentiary proceedings, and in 2017 a judge threw out their cases because the RJA had, at that point, been repealed. Each then had their sentences reverted back to the death penalty.
Golphin, Robinson, Walter and Augustine have each filed claims with the state Supreme Court that their life sentences should be reinstated, which the court has yet to rule on. But, at the bare minimum, Friday’s ruling means that they each will have the chance to have new evidentiary hearings to address the racial bias they allege had impacted their trials.
“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.”