1940’s Mississippi? No, this happened in 21st Century North Carolina

1940’s Mississippi? No, this happened in 21st Century North Carolina

At Andrew Ramseur’s trial, the Iredell County sheriff cordoned of the rows behind the defense table with yellow crime scene tape.

A young Black man is accused of killing two white people. White community members begin making baldly racist calls for the suspect to be hanged, shot or otherwise “taken care of” by a gang of vigilantes. The county prosecutor quickly assures the public he will seek the death penalty.

The threats of lynching continue. Even the defense attorneys receive death threats. Yet, the judge refuses to move the trial to another county. When the trial starts, the Black defendant’s family is forced to sit in the back of the courtroom. The prosecutor strikes every last Black person from the jury pool. An all-white jury quickly sentences the defendant to death.

You probably think I’m telling a story from the 1940s. But this happened in 2010 in Iredell County, North Carolina. The defendant was Andrew Ramseur, and I was one of his lawyers.

This week, Andrew’s case will be heard in the North Carolina Supreme Court. He’s one of six death row prisoners arguing under the state’s Racial Justice Act for their right to present evidence that racial bias was a significant factor in their sentences.

In my career, I’ve represented many people charged with murder. I helped free Darryl Hunt, a Black man who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Yet, I’ve rarely seen a clearer example than Andrew Ramseur’s case of the ways that racism continues to affect who is charged with a capital crime and sentenced to death.

Andrew was 19 when he shot two people in a convenience store robbery that went wrong. It was a terrible crime that caused great pain, but because Andrew was Black and the victims were white, it sparked a dark response from the community. In the months before the trial, newspaper stories were flooded with online comments. Among many other things, Andrew was called a “monkey” who should be “hung from the nearest tree.”

Andrew grew up in a poor African-American neighborhood next to a Superfund toxic waste site in Statesville. His mother abandoned Andrew and his older brothers before he was two years old, still in diapers. His grandmother, with whom he and his brothers lived for much of his youth, organized and fought to force the police to rid the neighborhood of open drug use and distribution.

Prosecutors often seek life sentences in similar crimes, especially when, like Andrew, the defendant is young and has no history of violence. Instead, amid a media frenzy, the prosecutor promised the death penalty within two weeks of the crime — even before Andrew had been indicted.

As the trial approached, online forums hosted a steady stream of racist comments and the defense team received threats. We made several motions to move the trial to another county, but the judge refused.

When the trial began, things only got worse. As the defense team arrived at the courthouse each morning, an angry crowd stood outside fixing us with menacing stares. Inside, we were shocked to find that the sheriff’s department had cordoned off the rows of seats directly behind the defense table with yellow crime scene tape (see the picture above).

The sheriff said the tape was to protect Andrew; instead, it made him look dangerous in front of the jury. It also forced his African American family to sit in the back of the courtroom, while the all-white crowd supporting the victims sat in the front rows on the prosecutor’s side. We eventually persuaded the judge to order the sheriff to remove the tape but, unbelievably, Andrew’s family was still forced to leave the front rows empty and sit in the back.

During jury selection, the prosecutor used his peremptory strikes to remove all the Black jurors. A prosecutor questioned one Black potential juror about her membership in the NAACP, yet he chose not to ask another potential white juror about his membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans. We started with a diverse jury pool, but were left with an all-white jury that had no understanding of the impoverished, segregated neighborhood where Andrew grew up.

In that courtroom, my client never had a chance. He never had a chance to be presumed innocent, to have a jury of his peers, or to be seen as human.

The Racial Justice Act took effect in North Carolina in 2009, at the same time that white citizens of Iredell County were calling for Andrew’s lynching. The law required that defendants be removed from death row and resentenced to life without parole if they could prove that race was a significant factor in the decision to seek or impose their death sentence. The idea was simple: Our state should not carry out racist executions.

After the law passed, we realized Andrew’s case wasn’t an exception. A study of strike rates in North Carolina death penalty trials found that, between 1990 and 2009, Iredell County prosecutors struck nearly 90 percent of qualified Black jurors. By comparison, they struck less than 30 percent of qualified white jurors. The study also found that, during those years, not a single white defendant was prosecuted capitally in Iredell County.

Yet, instead of allowing Andrew to present his evidence in court, a Republican-led legislature repealed the Racial Justice Act. Then, a Superior Court judge threw out Andrew’s claim, saying he had no right to a hearing.

Now, the State Supreme Court must decide if this evidence will ever get its day in court. If the justices look with open minds at Andrew’s case, they will see that the evidence is too clear — and far too disturbing — to ignore. His death sentence was tainted by racism, and we cannot allow that verdict to stand.

Mark Rabil is a professor at Wake Forest University School of Law and the director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic. He was a criminal defense attorney for more than 30 years, and his advocacy led to the 2004 exoneration of Darryl Hunt, who was wrongfully imprisoned for 19 years.