In State v. Robinson, Supreme Court Rules That NC Constitution Bars Retroactive Repeal Of RJA

By Burton Craige

In State v. Marcus Robinson, the Supreme Court held that our state constitution bars the retroactive repeal of the Racial Justice Act (RJA), which was enacted in 2009 and repealed in 2013. In 2012, at the first hearing under the RJA, Robinson, an inmate on death row, produced evidence of pervasive statewide racial bias in capital sentencing. Judge Weeks found that Robinson’s trial and sentencing were infected with racial bias and, in accordance with the RJA, voided his death sentence and imposed a sentence of life without parole.

While the State’s appeal was pending, the General Assembly repealed the RJA and made the repeal retroactive. The Supreme Court reversed Judge Weeks’s order on procedural grounds, and did not address the retroactivity or double jeopardy issues. The State then moved Robinson back to death row. On remand, Judge Spainhour ruled that the repeal of the RJA barred Robinson from challenging his death sentence. The Supreme Court granted Robinson’s petition for writ of certiorari.

NCAJ submitted an amicus brief in the Supreme Court, arguing that the reimposition of the death penalty after Robinson had proved his entitlement to relief under the RJA violated the state constitutional prohibition on double jeopardy.

On Aug. 14, 2020, a divided Court reversed. The plurality opinion, authored by Chief Justice Beasley and joined by Justice Morgan and Justice Earls, reviewed the state’s long history of racial discrimination in capital cases. The plurality agreed with NCAJ’s amicus brief, finding that the retroactive repeal of the RJA subjected Robinson to double jeopardy, in violation of the state constitution. Justice Hudson concurred in the result. Justices, Ervin, Davis, and Newby dissented.

The primary author of NCAJ’s amicus brief was Bidish Sarma, assisted by James Williams and Burton Craige. Burton and Narendra Ghosh participated in a moot court

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