Democrat Cheri Beasley’s record in North Carolina Supreme Court cases involving violent crime is the subject of competing TV ads in the state’s U.S. Senate race. But neither ad gives viewers all of the necessary context for the claims portraying Beasley, a former state chief justice, as either weak or tough on crime.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee is spending over $1 million on an ad that claims Beasley “failed to protect” victims of murder and molestation.
“The murderer who shot a boy in the face. Beasley vacated his death sentence,” the ad’s narrator says. “The man convicted of sexually assaulting a 7-year-old girl. She threw out the indictment. And that’s just the beginning.”
“‘Disgraceful.’ ‘Horrible.’ That’s what North Carolina sheriffs are calling this false ad attacking Cheri Beasley,” the Democratic super PAC’s ad says of the NRSC commercial. The narrator goes on to say: “Truth is, Judge Beasley’s cracked down on violent criminals her entire career. When a man killed a child, she gave him the death penalty.”
Here we review the facts of each case for readers to have a fuller picture.
For instance, the convicted murderer mentioned in the NRSC ad is still in prison, serving a life sentence and is not eligible for parole. Also, the man whose indictment for sexual assault was thrown out due to an error by state prosecutors will be retried this summer.
Beasley served on the North Carolina Supreme Court from 2012 to 2020, and was chief justice her last two years. She will face Republican Rep. Ted Budd in the general election.
State v. Marcus Reymond Robinson
First, the NRSC ad says, “The murderer who shot a boy in the face. Beasley vacated his death sentence.”
Citations in small print on screen indicate that the ad is referring to Marcus Reymond Robinson, a Black man, whom a judge sentenced to death in 1994, for the 1991 murder of 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, who was white.
In 2010, Robinson appealed his death sentence by filing a motion for relief under the Racial Justice Act, which was enacted in North Carolina in 2009. That law allowed inmates on death row to have their sentences reduced if the defendants could demonstrate in court that racial bias or discrimination was a “significant factor” in their trial proceedings.
Then, in 2012, when Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that Robinson had shown that race had been a factor in jury selection during his trial, he resentenced Robinson to life in prison without the possibility of parole, as required by the racial justice law.
However, in 2015, two years after the Republican-led state Legislature repealed that law, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the state had not been given enough time to prepare a defense to Robinson’s petition for relief. Robinson’s lesser sentence of life in prison was vacated, and his petition was remanded back to the Superior Court, where a new judge, W. Edwin Spainhour, ruled in 2017 that Robinson could no longer apply for sentence relief under the Racial Justice Act because that law had since been repealed.
As a result, Robinson was sent back to death row.
But Robinson appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, arguing that retroactively applying the repeal of RJA in his case violated state protections against double jeopardy, which generally prevents individuals from being tried or punished for the same crime more than once. And in a 2020 ruling, the court, in a 4-to-3 vote, agreed.
In the majority opinion, Beasley, who was chief justice of the court at the time, wrote: “Once the trial court found that Robinson 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 our state’s constitution.”
Thus, the court ordered that Robinson’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole had to be reinstated. He is still in prison.
State v. Michael Lee White
The NRSC ad also says of Beasley, “The man convicted of sexually assaulting a 7-year-old girl. She threw out the indictment.”
According to the ad’s citations, that is a reference to Michael Lee White, who confessed in 2013 to performing a sexual act on a young girl. He was convicted in 2015 of sexual offense with a child by an adult offender, and Graham County Superior Court Judge J. Thomas Davis sentenced him to between 300 and 369 months in prison, and, upon his release, satellite-based monitoring for life.
However, White challenged the outcome of his trial. He argued that the 2015 indictment used to convict him, which included an additional count of indecent liberties with a child, was invalid because it identified the girl as “Victim #1” and did not include her real name, as a state law requires. That indictment superseded the original 2013 indictment, which did use the victim’s given name and included just one charge of first-degree sex offense with a child, according to court documents.
Then, in 2017, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that, because the victim’s name could be found in other documents, such as the arresting warrant, the superseding indictment was not defective, or invalid, and not grounds to dismiss the conviction.
But White took his case to the state Supreme Court, which disagreed with the appellate court in a 4-to-2 vote in 2019.
Writing for the majority, Beasley, who had been chief justice for only a few months at the time, said: “The statutory language is clear and unambiguous: it requires that the child be named as part of the allegations in the indictment. In common understanding, to name someone is to identify that person in a way that is unique to that individual and enables others to distinguish between the named person and all other people. The phrase ‘Victim #1’ does not distinguish this victim from other children or victims.”
She added: “The State concedes that its intent was to conceal the identity of the child — an intent at odds with the purpose of the naming requirement: to provide notice of the essential elements of the crime charged to the accused. Thus, use of the phrase ‘Victim #1’ does not constitute ‘naming the child.’”
Because Beasley and three other justices said the appellate court erred in its ruling, the state Supreme Court ordered the case remanded to the trial court so the original judgment against White could be vacated — triggering a new trial.
According to the North Carolina Judicial Branch website, White is currently scheduled to be back in Superior Court in Graham County on Aug. 3.
In the cases of both Robinson and White, Beasley’s majority opinions were based on technical interpretations of state law rather than any presumption of the defendants’ innocence or guilt.
State v. Eric Glenn Lane
The Senate Majority PAC ad supporting Beasley says, “When a man killed a child, she gave him the death penalty.”
The ad cites a March 2018 Goldsboro News-Argus article about the North Carolina Supreme Court denying Eric Glenn Lane’s request to allow for post-conviction DNA testing of hair samples that were not previously examined during his trial.
In 2005, Lane was convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering a 5-year-old girl in 2002. He was sentenced to death by the jury and a Superior Court judge, not Beasley.
Ten years later, Lane asked the trial court in Wayne County to allow for DNA testing of the vaginal and rectal swabs and smears collected from the victim’s body during an autopsy. The court granted the petition, but the test results were found to be “unfavorable” to the defendant, the court said.
Lane then requested the testing of hair samples that were found in a bag with the victim’s body. He argued that the hair could belong to another perpetrator.
But the trial court denied Lane’s motion, citing a failure “to show that the requested postconviction DNA testing of hair samples is material to his defense.” Considering all of the other evidence, including Lane’s confession, the court said it “does not find the existence of a reasonable probability that the verdict would have been more favorable to Defendant Lane if the testing being requested in Defendant Lane’s current motion had been conducted on the evidence.”
Lane appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court, which ruled against him.
In the 2018 opinion, which was unanimous, Beasley, who was then an associate justice on the court, wrote: “[W]e conclude that the additional overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt presented at trial, the dearth of evidence at trial pointing to a second perpetrator, and the inability of forensic testing to determine whether the hair samples at issue are relevant to establish a third party was involved in these crimes together create an insurmountable hurdle to the success of defendant’s materiality argument.”
She added: “In this case, though there is no eyewitness account of the crimes themselves other than defendant’s confession, a plethora of eyewitness testimony corroborates defendant’s own account of how he disposed of [the victim’s] body. A great deal of physical evidence also ties items in defendant’s home to the location where the victim’s body was found and links defendant to the crimes committed against P.W. His confession is consistent with all of this evidence, and he never implicated a second perpetrator. All the evidence in this case points to defendant — and defendant alone — as committing the crimes against the victim. In light of this evidence, defendant has failed to convince this Court that DNA testing of the hair samples is material regarding his convictions.”
Beasley said there was no “reasonable probability” that the DNA testing would have affected the jury’s recommendation of a death sentence.
“Therefore, we affirm the trial court’s order denying defendant’s motion requesting postconviction DNA testing of hair samples,” she wrote.
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