State v. Robinson, 375 N.C. 173 (Aug. 14, 2020)

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1994. The defendant filed a timely motion for appropriate relief pursuant to the RJA in 2010. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court resentenced the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Following resentencing of three other defendants under the RJA, the General Assembly repealed the RJA. The repeal stated that it was retroactive and voided all pending motions for appropriate relief but did not apply to a trial court order resentencing a defendant to life without parole if that order was affirmed on appellate review.

A joint hearing was thereafter held by a different trial judge on the motions for appropriate relief by the four defendants, to consider whether the defendant’s claims were rendered void by the RJA repeal. While the trial court found that the defendant’ss rights had not vested and that the RJA repeal was not an ex post facto law, the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred by failing to consider the defendant’s double jeopardy argument.

The Supreme Court held that the initial trial court’s order resentencing the defendant to life in prison was an acquittal for purposes of double jeopardy. The Court reasoned that once the trial court found that the defendant had proven all of the essential elements under the RJA to bar the imposition of the death penalty, he was acquitted of that capital sentence, jeopardy terminated, and any attempt by the State to reimpose the death penalty would be a violation of the state constitution. One justice, concurring, agreed with the three-member majority that the judgment and commitment order in which the defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was a final judgment, for which appellate review was neither sought nor obtained, and that double jeopardy barred further review.

Justice Newby, in dissent, argued that the majority opinion presented three grounds for its ruling, only one of which garnered four votes, resulting in the narrow holding that the State failed to appeal the amended judgment and commitment order so that order is final. Justice Ervin, in dissent, concluded that based on the Court’s holding in State v. Ramseur, 843 S.E.2d 106 (N.C. 2020), the case should be remanded to the trial court for a full hearing on the merits of the defendant’s RJA claim at a proceeding where the State has a further opportunity to respond.