State v. Ramseur, 374 N.C. 658 (Jun. 5, 2020)

The defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder based on offenses committed in 2007. He was sentenced to death in 2010. That same year he filed a motion for appropriate relief under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), but the trial court did not rule on it until after the General Assembly amended the RJA in 2012 and then repealed it in 2013. The repeal was made retroactively applicable to all pending MARs filed before the effective date of the repeal. The trial court therefore determined that the repeal rendered the defendant’s MAR void and dismissed it. The trial court also ruled in the alternative that the defendant’s RJA claims were without merit and that no evidentiary hearing was necessary to resolve them.

The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari. (1) The Court agreed with the defendant that retroactive application of the RJA repeal violated the prohibitions against ex post facto laws in the state and federal constitutions. The Court reasoned that this was the type of ex post facto law that inflicts a greater punishment for an offense than the law applicable when it was committed. Though the RJA did not exist when the defendant committed his crimes, the effective date coverage of the original RJA—which did include the defendant’s offense date—made the RJA applicable to crimes committed at that time. The Court concluded that the legislature’s repeal of a prior, retroactively-applicable ameliorative law like the RJA violated ex post facto principles. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the RJA was a mere procedural overlay that did not substantively change the law governing the death penalty. Through the RJA, the 2009 General Assembly affirmatively sought to allow the review of statistical evidence that the Supreme Court had not allowed in McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), and to create a new claim for relief not otherwise available. The Court also acknowledged that the RJA repeal happened shortly after four defendants had obtained relief under the original Act, making relevant one of the policy purposes of the Ex Post Facto Clause: to restrain “arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation.” Slip op. at 29.

(2) The Court next considered whether retroactive application of the 2012 RJA amendments to the defendant also violated the prohibition against ex post facto laws. The 2012 amendments made three significant changes to the law. And because the 2012 legislation included a severability clause, the Court analyzed each of them separately. The first change was to eliminate the mandatory requirement for an evidentiary hearing upon the filing of an RJA claim. The Court concluded that this was a procedural change that—despite working to the disadvantage of some defendants, including Mr. Ramseur—did not implicate the prohibition on ex post facto laws. The second change altered the evidentiary requirements for establishing racial discrimination in an RJA claim in several ways, including shrinking the relevant geographic region from the entire state to the specific county or prosecutorial district, limiting the relevant time for consideration, and mandating that statistical evidence alone is insufficient to establish a meritorious claim. The Court concluded that this second set of changes implemented a more stringent standard of proof for establishing discrimination that cannot permissibly apply retroactively. The third change added a waiver provision, saying that a defendant must waive any objection to imposition of a sentence of life without parole as a prerequisite for asserting an RJA claim. The Court declined to address the constitutionality of that change because it was not at issue in Mr. Ramseur’s case. In summary, the 2012 amendment eliminating the mandatory hearing requirement could permissibly apply to an RJA claim asserted before the amendments became law, but the other evidentiary changes could not. Therefore, the evidentiary rules of the original RJA must apply to pre-amendment filings like Mr. Ramseur’s.

Finally, the Court concluded that the trial court erred by concluding without an evidentiary hearing that the defendant’s RJA MARs were without merit. The defendant’s motions included extensive evidence, stated with particularity, tending to show race was a significant factor in imposition of death sentences within the meaning of the RJA. The Court said the motions also established that the defendant was entitled to discovery of State files under G.S. 15A-1415(f). The Court remanded the case for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion.

Justice Newby dissented, concluding primarily that the RJA amendments and repeal did not violate ex post facto principles because they left the defendant no worse off than he was when he committed his offense in 2007, before the RJA was enacted.