Jun 6, 2020 - Politics & Policy

N.C. Supreme Court opens door for death row inmates to show racism swayed sentencing

Backlit protesters

Protestors block the path of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers as they attempt to make an arrest in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 2. Photo: Logan Cyrus/AFP via Getty Images

The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled on Friday to give two black men on death row the chance to downgrade their sentences by proving that racism played an outsized role during court deliberations.

The big picture: The ruling comes amid nationwide protests against how police — and the criminal justice system as a whole — treat black people in the U.S., in the wake of George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis.

Details: The ruling could apply to many defendants who previously filed claims to have their sentences downgraded to life in prison without parole under the Racial Justice Act, for which the court found the 2013 repeal of to be unconstitutional.

  • The court ruled in favor of Rayford Lewis Burke and Andrew Darrin Ramseur on Friday. An all-white jury sentenced Ramseur to death in 2010 for two counts of first-degree murder. Burke was convicted in 1993 with one count of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

What they're saying: “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.

  • “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. When RJA passed in 2009, North Carolina took the first step and examined a shameful truth about our criminal legal system. Today, the court has confirmed we will take the next step, bear witness to that racism, and do something to rectify the tremendous harm it has caused," Hill said.

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