Capital Punishment

In 2009, North Carolina adopted the first-of-its-kind law called the Racial Justice Act. It allowed people on death row to challenge their sentences on the basis that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty. Under the RJA, individuals who successfully prove discrimination will have their death sentence vacated and will be resentenced to life without parole. More than 130 people filed claims challenging their death sentences under the RJA.  

In 2012, the first successful claims under the RJA were brought on behalf of four people: Marcus Robinson, Tilmon Golphin, Christina Walters, and Quintel Augustine. In all four cases, a judge found discrimination had played an impermissible role in their cases and commuted their death sentences to life without parole. The North Carolina Supreme Court later reversed the trial judge’s findings of discrimination on the ground that the State should have had additional time to prepare, but it ruled that the four defendants could not be stripped of the life sentences imposed by the judge.  

In 2013, the North Carolina state legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act and attempted to make that repeal retroactive. 

On June 5, 2020, the North Carolina State Supreme Court ruled that individuals who filed for relief under the RJA before it was repealed could move forward with challenging their death sentences. The decision ensured that none of the individuals who filed a claim under the RJA can be executed without the opportunity to present evidence of racial discrimination in charging, sentencing, or jury selection.   

Hasson Bacote, a Black man from Johnston County, North Carolina, filed for relief under the RJA in 2010. In Johnston County, every Black person who has faced a capital jury has been sentenced to death. Mr. Bacote argues that race played an impermissible role in jury selection, not just in his case, but in all death penalty cases in North Carolina. Mr. Bacote’s case is the first to move forward since the North Carolina Supreme Court decided in 2020 that all claims made under the RJA remain valid, despite the law’s 2013 repeal. Mr. Bacote’s case is also the first case in North Carolina where a trial court has ordered statewide discovery of prosecution notes from all capital trials of jury selection. 

Mr. Bacote is represented by the ACLU of North Carolina, the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Jay Ferguson of Thomas, Ferguson & Beskind, LLP.  

On February 26, 2024, an evidentiary hearing began in Mr. Bacote’s case. At this hearing, Mr. Bacote’s legal team presented social science and historical evidence linking the death sentences of Black men to a pattern of racial terror and intimidation. The legal team presented statistical evidence of racial disparities in the prosecutor’s use of peremptory strikes in capital cases across the State of North Carolina and in Johnston County, as well as racial disparities in capital sentencing in Johnston County that made Mr. Bacote’s death sentence the product of racial discrimination. Mr. Bacote’s case will decide key questions about the scope and application of the RJA.   

The evidentiary hearing is still pending.