Case: Capital Punishment

North Carolina v. Bacote
and Racial Justice Act FAQ

The death penalty, the need for Racial Justice Acts to address discrimination, and what's at stake in North Carolina v. Bacote.

In North Carolina v. Bacote, Hasson Bacote is challenging his death sentence under North Carolina’s landmark Racial Justice Act (RJA). Under the RJA, Mr. Bacote is arguing that racial discrimination played a role in the death sentence and jury discrimination in his case, requiring a resentencing to life without parole. LDF, along with  the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, ACLU Capital Punishment Project, and individual appointed attorneys represent Mr. Bacote in this case. 

Mr. Bacote was convicted of first-degree murder under North Carolina’s felony murder rule and sentenced to death by a nearly all-white jury on April 9, 2009 in the Superior Court of Johnston County, North Carolina. He was just 21 at the time of the crime that led to his death sentence. Much of the evidence presented during his trial centered on two prior convictions — attempted common law robbery, a low level felony that Hasson pled to when he was 17 years old, and accessory after the fact, another low-level felony that Hasson pled to on the advice of an attorney who, a year later, would be suspended from the practice of law. 

Mr. Bacote promptly filed for relief under the RJA in 2010. In 2013, the North Carolina state legislature repealed the RJA and attempted to make that repeal retroactive. In 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that the repeal of the RJA could not be retroactively applied to those who applied for relief under the Act, allowing Mr. Bacote’s RJA case to proceed. 

Mr. Bacote’s case will be the first to move forward since the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that all claims made under the RJA remain valid, despite the law’s 2013 repeal. Thus, Mr. Bacote’s case will decide key questions about the scope, application, and future of the RJA. 

In February 2024, Mr. Bacote will present 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 he will argue made his death sentence the product of racial discrimination.

Race should not play a role in who lives or dies.  In Johnston County, North Carolina, the cards are stacked against Black defendants: Every Black person who has faced a capital jury in Johnston County has been sentenced to death. 

Passed in 2009, the Racial Justice Act (“RJA”) allowed capital defendants to challenge their death sentences on the basis that race was a significant factor in decisions to seek or impose the death penalty. Under the law, North Carolina courts are required to vacate death sentences where racial bias was a factor in sentencing. Individuals who successfully proved discrimination under the RJA could be resentenced to life without parole. It was the first law of its kind to address racial discrimination in jury selection.  

This legislation was passed in direct response to the constraints set forth by the United States Supreme Court’s decision in McCleskey v. Kemp, which refused to recognize claims of Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment violations in death penalty cases premised solely on statistical evidence of arbitrariness and/or racial bias. 

As a result of the RJA, studies uncovered statewide patterns of racial discrimination in jury selection and jury sentencing. Under the RJA, individuals sentenced to death could present evidence that prosecutors systematically excluded Black jurors from capital juries. Individuals could also present evidence that people convicted of murdering white victims were more likely to be sentenced to death. 

Unfortunately, the RJA was repealed by the state legislature in 2013.  

See a timeline of the Racial Justice Act here

On June 5, 202o, the North Carolina State Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in the case State v. Ramseur that struck down the Legislature’s provision that the repeal of the RJA is retroactive to all pending claims. The ruling meant that individuals who had filed for relief under the RJA before it was repealed in 2013 could move forward with challenging their death sentences under the RJA. The decision ensures 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.  

In a companion case State v. Burke, in which LDF participated as amicus curiae (including oral advocacy), the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Burke could challenge his death sentence under the RJA with substantial claims that race was a significant factor during the selection of his capital jury. In our amicus brief, LDF urged the court to allow Mr. Burke to pursue his claims of jury discrimination. These claims included compelling statistical evidence of prosecutors disproportionately striking Black prospective jurors in Mr. Burke’s county, his prosecutorial district, his judicial division, and across the entire state of North Carolina.  

Following the Ramseur and Burke decisions, a trial court must hear any RJA claim filed by a capital defendant before the RJA’s repeal. 

In an August 2020 decision in State v. Robinson, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that retroactively applying the RJA repeal is a violation of the state constitution’s double jeopardy provision. This meant that the repeal could not apply retroactively to Robinson and three other people who had already received RJA relief/had their death sentences vacated. Mr. Robinson was the first individual on North Carolina’s death row to pursue a claim under the RJA, and he successfully proved that racial discrimination infected his trial and sentencing. The ruling meant that Mr. Robinson, a Black man sentenced to death in 1994, must have his life sentence reinstated.  

Mr. Bacote’s case is the first RJA case to come before a North Carolina trial court since the 2020 decision that rejected the North Carolina legislature’s attempt to apply the repeal of the RJA retroactively.  

The North Carolina legislature attempted to make the repeal retroactive to everyone with pending claims under the RJA. In doing so, the legislature sought to ensure that none of the individuals on death row who challenged racial discrimination in sentencing were ever heard in court. 

In 2015, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the grant of relief to the four death row prisoners who previously prevailed under the RJA. These four individuals were sent back to death row, and 100 others who filed cases under the RJA were left in legal limbo. 

According to data from LDF’s Death Row USA report in Winter 2023, there are 140 individuals on death row in North Carolina. Seventy four of them are Black. Less than 30 percent of North Carolinians are people of color, but people of color comprise 60 percent of individuals on death row. Eight out of ten individuals who were exonerated from death row are Black. 

Following the passage of the Racial Justice Act (“RJA”), many individuals filed for relief under the RJA. Given the rampant racial discrimination that has pervaded North Carolina’s courts, the RJA potentially impacts nearly all defendants currently on death row.  

After the RJA’s passage in 2009, more than 130 individuals filed for relief under the law. Four individuals — Marcus Robinson, — successfully proved claims under the RJA and had their death sentences overturned by a superior court judge under the RJA because race tainted their cases. 

However, the decisions were reversed by the North Carolina Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling and their death sentences were reinstated. The case went back in front of a different superior court judge who, in 2017, said the claims were moot because the RJA was repealed. In 2020, the NC Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated life without parole. 

Research by Michigan State University examining capital cases in North Carolina between 1990 and 2010 revealed that Black citizens were struck from death penalty juries at more than twice the rate of whites. Even when controlling for other factors, significant racial disparities persist. 

Prior RJA cases that had evidentiary hearings before the 2013 repeal revealed direct evidence of discrimination, including prosecutors’ notes referring to potential Black jurors with terms including “blk wino” and “thug,” as well as documents from a training seminar where North Carolina district attorneys were taught to evade the law banning race-based exclusion of jurors. The training handout included a list of fabricated excuses prosecutors could use to strike Black people from juries, including their hairstyle, allegedly showing an “air of defiance,” or a failure to make eye contact with the prosecutor.  

Evidence presented in State v. Robinson showed that race was a significant factor in prosecutors’ decisions to use peremptory strikes to exclude Black jurors in District 11 of Johnston County where Mr. Bacote was sentenced to death. Mr. Robinson’s RJA claim was ultimately successful and he was resentenced to life in prison. This decision was overturned when the RJA was repealed in 2013. 

In Johnston County, where Mr. Bacote was prosecuted, every Black individual  tried before a jury since 1990 received a death sentence. Juries were twice as likely to sentence defendants of color to death. In Johnston County, white people have a better than 50/50 chance of having their lives spared, while Black people are condemned to execution 100% of the time. 

Hasson Bacote’s case will be the first to move forward since the North Carolina Supreme Court decided in June 2020 that all claims made under the RJA remain valid, despite the law’s 2013 repeal. Mr. Bacote will be the first defendant to present social science and historical evidence linking the death sentences of Black men to a pattern of racial terror and intimidation. He will also present powerful statistical evidence of discrimination in sentencing defendants to the death penalty. Mr. Bacote’s case will decide key questions about the scope and application of the RJA.  

Mr. Bacote will present statistical evidence of racial disparities in prosecutor’s use of peremptory strikes in capital cases in North Carolina and in Johnston County, as well as racial disparities in capital sentencing in Johnston County.  This type of proof—while key to rooting out racism in the criminal punishment system—is not typically considered in criminal cases, which made the RJA unique. 

Mr. Bacote’s case and the evidence presented in his filings under the RJA pointedly expose the racial discrimination in North Carolina courts, how prosecutors have methodically worked to exclude Black people from jury service, and how racism is inextricable from capital punishment. Put simply, his case underscores why the RJA’s full reinstatement is essential to ensuring equal justice under the law. 

Mr. Bacote’s case is the first case in North Carolina—and indeed, in the country, where a trial court has ordered statewide discovery of prosecution notes from all capital trials of jury selection. It will be the first time a court is presented with a full complement of statistical, historical, and evidence drawn from individual cases across the state. 

Yes. North Carolina has a long, sordid history of racial discrimination inside and outside of the courtroom.  

In Johnston County, where Mr. Bacote was prosecuted, Black potential jurors were struck at four times the rate of white potential jurors. The prosecutor who tried Mr. Bacote’s case tried cases all over North Carolina and, overall, in his cases, similarly struck qualified Black potential jurors at more than 10 times the rate of white jurors. The prosecutor referred to Mr. Bacote as a “thug” during his trial. At other trials, he referred to three Black defendants as “beasts of the African Plain.”  He called another Black defendant a “piece of trash.” 

Johnston County was the site of at least four lynchings between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of World War I. Through the 1970s, KKK billboards greeted drivers with messages like, “Welcome to Klan country. Love it or leave it.” Today, the county remains deeply segregated. Though Black residents make up 19% of the population, the county has never elected a Black sheriff, district attorney, or county commissioner. In fact, only one Black person has been elected to countywide office. The current sheriff has publicly voiced anti-immigrant slurs and remained in office with no challengers. Recently, the county commissioners withheld millions in funding from the public schools until they adopted a policy saying that teachers can be fired if they teach about systemic racism. 

Since our founding, LDF has been a pioneering voice in the fight to abolish the death penalty and eliminate racial discrimination from the courts. 

Whether administered by federal or state government, the death penalty is infected with fundamental flaws, including persistent racial discrimination, and human error. The imposition of the death penalty in the United States has consistently been shown to disproportionately impact Black communities and other communities of color. Since 1973, at least 189 people wrongly convicted and sentenced to death have been exonerated. 100 of the death row exonerees are Black.

Throughout our history, LDF has firmly and unwaveringly argued that the death penalty is not only a form of cruel and unusual punishment, but also a violation of the equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Five decades after Furman v. Georgia, continues to be clear that the death penalty is unjustly applied, fails to deter crime, and violates fundamental human rights. A growing number of countries and U.S. states have recognized injustices and the immorality of capital punishment.

Racism is inextricably linked to capital punishment. The death penalty has its roots in slavery, lynchings, white vigilantism, and the racial inequities in sentencing persist to this day.

LDF Original Content

How Racism in the Courtroom Produces Wrongful convictions and Mass Incarceration

At every stage of the criminal justice process following the filing of charges, racial bias seeps into decisions made by prosecutors, jurors, and judges. From discrimination in jury selection, to racism and bias among jury members, and sentencing disparities, — three major failures in court proceedings that often lead to unjust convictions and sentencing — our criminal legal system repeatedly fails Black people. Racial bias in the courtroom undermines our democracy. Unless it is eliminated, no trial will ever be impartial. 


Death Row USA

Death Penalty Cases and Statistics

Death Row USA includes data on death row populations by state, executions, statistics on race and gender, pending death penalty cases, and more in states with the death penalty. Death Row USA also includes data on federal death row populations, executions by the U.S. Government and the U.S. Military.

As of 2023, there are 2,331 people on death row. 961 of them are Black. One out of five people living in the U.S. are people of color. But 55% of people on federal death row are Black, Latino, Asian or Native. 

Landmark Cases

LDF Death Penalty Litigation

In the landmark 1972 case Furman v. Georgia, LDF secured the country’s first and only nationwide halt to executions. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in LDF’s favor and found the death penalty as then administered constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.  

LDF identified the the persistent racial discrimination in the administration of the death penalty and successfully, argued that the death penalty was arbitrarily and disproportionately imposed on Black Americans and other marginalized groups.

The Court ruled that Georgia’s death penalty statute that gave juries complete discretion over sentencing could result in arbitrary application of the death penalty. The decision resulted in the commutation of the sentences 629 individuals on death row. In holding that the death penalty violated the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment, the Court’s decision forced states to rethink their laws going forward to ensure that the death penalty would not be administered in a discriminatory manner.

Unfortunately, this decision proved to be only temporary as Gregg v. Georgia (1976) reinstated its acceptance and use. Read our statement on the 50th anniversary of Furman v. Georgia.

In 1987, LDF returned to the Supreme Court to once again challenge the constitutionality of the death penalty in Georgia due to the persistent racial discrimination in its application.

In McCleskey v. Kemp, LDF presented compelling evidence proving how racial discrimination infected the capital punishment system. Regrettably, the justices dismissed the significance of well-documented racial disparities and decided they were not sufficient in overturning the death penalty sentence. The Supreme Court’s decision in McCleskey protected criminal justice laws and policies from being challenged on the basis of racially disparate impact. </span

In Buck v. Davis, LDF challenged the death sentence of a Texas man whose death sentence was a blatant product of racial discrimination. In a February 2017 decision, the Court ruled in LDF’s favor and unequivocally condemned the injection of racial bias into Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing hearing.

In order to hand down a death sentence in Texas, the jury must conclude that the defendant is likely to commit future violent acts. Mr. Buck’s own attorney introduced testimony in the sentencing phase of his trial that he was more likely to be dangerous solely because he is Black. LDF attorney Christina Swarns laid out a powerful argument before the Supreme Court as to why the rule of law demands a new sentencing hearing for Mr. Buck – one that is free from racial bias. In February 2017, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 6-2, declared that Mr. Buck’s trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for introducing the “toxin” of racial bias into Mr. Buck’s capital sentencing hearing. The decision reversed his death sentence and he was re-sentenced to life in prison in October 2017.