New anti-Beasley ad raises questions about her N.C. Supreme Court record

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is targeting Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley's record as state Supreme Court chief justice. (Screen shot from NRSC ad)

Listen to this story (6 minutes)

  • A national Republican group is spending more than $1 million on an ad attacking Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley's record on the N.C. Supreme Court.
  • The ad focuses on cases in which Beasley wrote opinions commuting a convicted murderer's death sentence and granting a new trial for a convicted child molester.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley says in a recent campaign ad, “In the Senate, I’ll never stop fighting to make North Carolina safe.” A new anti-Beasley ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee calls that promise into question.

NRSC unveiled the ad titled “Victims” on Friday, four days before Beasley was expected to win the Democratic nomination in North Carolina’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race. The GOP group is spending more than $1 million airing the ad.

The ad highlights Beasley’s “record of going easy on violent criminals while failing to protect the victims of these heinous crimes,” according to NRSC. The spot focuses on two opinions Beasley authored as chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court.  

The first case mentioned is State v. Robinson from August 2020. Beasley wrote the majority opinion for a 4-3 split state Supreme Court. Defendant Marcus Raymond Robinson had been sentenced to death in 1994 in a murder connected to a robbery. The 17-year-old victim had been killed by a shotgun blast to the face.

Twenty-six years later, Beasley and three colleagues vacated Robinson’s death sentence. They focused on a state law called the Racial Justice Act. That law had allowed death row inmates to use statistics unrelated to their own convictions to challenge their death sentences.

“[T]he vast majority of death row inmates were on the precipice of an opportunity to individually demonstrate that the proceedings in which they were sentenced to death were fundamentally flawed by racial animus,” Beasley wrote. The General Assembly later repealed RJA, but Beasley and the court’s majority determined that Robinson already had proven racial bias in his case.

Dissenting justices would have sent Robinson back to a trial court for another hearing. Then-Associate Justice Paul Newby, the court’s only Republican, skewered Beasley’s opinion.

“As a monarch, King Louis XVI once famously said, “C’est légal, parce que je le veux” (“It is legal because it is my will.”) Today, four justices of this Court adopt the same approach to the law, violating the norms of appellate review and disregarding or distorting precedent as necessary to reach their desired result. Apparently, in their view, the law is whatever they say it is.”

The majority decision ended up commuting Robinson’s death sentence to life in prison.

The second case cited in the NRSC ad, State v. White, dates back to May 2019, three months after Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper installed Beasley as chief justice.

In the White case, the defendant had confessed in writing to sexually molesting a 7-year-old girl. But his lawyers argued that his conviction should be thrown out because an indictment in the case failed to mention the victim by name.

“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,” Beasley wrote for the 4-2 majority. “Thus, use of the phrase ‘Victim #1’ does not constitute ‘naming the child.’”

Justice Michael Morgan, a fellow Democrat, rejected Beasley’s reasoning in a dissent. He critiqued Beasley’s “narrow and rigid interpretation of the applicable law.” Morgan lamented the “unnecessary collision course” the court’s majority created for two important rights. One was the criminal defendant’s right “to have sufficient notice of the charges lodged against him.” The other: “the State’s laudable aim to protect the identity of a minor who is the alleged victim of a sex crime.”

In a separate dissent, Newby argued that the disputed indictment had caused the defendant no harm. “Once again, a child victim must endure the emotional distress and indignities of another trial because of a purely legal technicality,” Newby wrote. “It is this type of legal gamesmanship which leads to cynicism about whether justice prevails in our criminal justice system.”

The NRSC ad cites Carolina Journal’s June 16, 2020, account of the White decision. CJ had revisited the year-old case because Beasley and Newby had just crossed swords again in another case involving a sexual predator.

The campaign ad does not mention the later case, State v. Keller. Beasley’s 5-2 decision in that dispute ordered a new trial for a man who had been caught soliciting online for sex. The defendant thought he was soliciting a 15-year-old boy. He actually was propositioning a police detective.

Beasley and the state Supreme Court majority ruled that the defendant should have been able to present a defense of entrapment. Once again, Newby dissented.

“The crucial event in this case is the moment defendant learned his prospective sexual partner was underage,” Newby wrote. “Once he learned that fact, he did not end his pursuit. Instead, he continued his undertaking to the point of driving to pick up his young victim. His actions demonstrate his predisposition to pursue such an illegal sexual encounter.”

Newby ended up beating Beasley by 401 votes in the 2020 election for N.C. Supreme Court chief justice.

Now Beasley hopes N.C. voters will send her to Washington. As the NRSC ad suggests, critics are likely to spend the next six months asking voters to compare Beasley’s record on the bench with her campaign rhetoric about “fighting to make North Carolina safe.”

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.  

More from Mitch Kokai