State Supreme Court displays partisan split in cases involving convicted criminals

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  • Democratic and Republican N.C. Supreme Court justices split along party lines in two recent cases involving convicted criminals.
  • Democrats outnumber Republicans, 4-3, on the court today. Two Supreme Court seats now held by Democrats are up for grabs in the November election.

Two recent decisions from the N.C. Supreme Court demonstrate a clear split between the court’s Democratic and Republican justices over the treatment of convicted criminals.

In State v. Farook, released May 6, the court’s Democratic majority ruled, 4-3, that an impaired driver responsible for killing two motorcycle riders deserved another chance to have his conviction thrown out. The defendant argues that authorities took too long to take his case to trial.

On the same day, the court ruled, 4-2, in State v. Robinson that a lower court made a mistake when accepting a guilty plea. The defendant in that case had attacked his girlfriend and held her captive for three days. Again, the court’s four Democratic justices made up the majority siding with the defendant.

The Rowan County case against Khalil Abdul Farook dates back nearly a decade. “In 2012, Mr. Farook was involved in a fatal automobile crash when his vehicle crossed the centerline of the road and collided with a motorcycle being ridden by Tommy and Suzette Jones. Mr. and Mrs. Jones died following the collision,” according to the Supreme Court majority opinion from Justice Anita Earls. “Another driver, Miguel Palacios, witnessed the collision. Mr. Palacios observed Mr. Farook approach the bodies of the victims and then leave the scene of the accident.”

Authorities later charged Farook, who was represented by four different attorneys before his case reached trial in 2018. Convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and other charges, he faced a sentence of two life sentences without parole and another 29-44 months behind bars.

A unanimous panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals would have thrown out Farook’s convictions. Appellate judges determined the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial had been violated. Supreme Court Democrats modified that decision, agreeing to send the case back to a trial judge for further review.

Republican justices disagreed. “By improperly removing the burden of proof from defendant and placing it squarely on the shoulders of the State, the majority effectively holds that the mere passage of time entitles a defendant to relief on a motion to dismiss for a purported speedy trial violation,” Justice Phil Berger Jr. wrote in dissent. “In addition, the majority eliminates the requirement … that a defendant demonstrate prejudice caused by the delay.”

Democratic and Republican justices also disagreed about whether it was proper to admit evidence that one of Farook’s attorneys had delayed the case intentionally. Republican justices would have allowed that evidence to play a role in rebutting Farook’s speedy-trial complaint.

Instead the defendant will get another day in court.

Meanwhile, the Buncombe County case of Lewie P. Robinson started in 2018. Democratic Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson’s majority opinion details a domestic violence incident involving Robinson and his girlfriend.

“Specifically, defendant grabbed [her] around the neck, punched her several times in the face and chest, and strangled her while holding her down on a bed,” Hudson wrote. “When law enforcement arrived, [she] stated that defendant had held her captive for three days. [She] sustained severe injuries to her jaw, neck, and chest from the attack, requiring extensive medical treatment.”

Charged with several crimes, Robinson pleaded guilty. He faced active prison sentences totaling roughly 3-5 years.

But the majority in a split Appeals Court panel determined that the multiday assault should not have led to multiple charges.

“We agree with the Court of Appeals majority and defendant that the facts provided at the hearing fail to establish evidence of a distinct interruption in the assault to support multiple assault convictions and sentences,” Hudson wrote for the Supreme Court’s Democrats. “Neither the prosecutor’s factual summary nor [the victim’s] statement note ‘an intervening event, a lapse of time in which a reasonable person may calm down, an interruption in the momentum of the attack, a change in location, or some other clear break delineating the end of one assault and the beginning of another.’”

“Instead, the factual statements as given describe a confined and continuous attack in which defendant choked and punched [the victim] in rapid succession and without pause or interruption.”

For Supreme Court Democrats, “the trial court erred when it accepted the plea and entered judgment on the three different assault charges,” Hudson wrote. The high court sent the case back to a trial judge.

Republican justices dissented. “Here the prosecutor’s factual summary and the testimony of the victim tended to show that there was a distinct interruption between each assault,” wrote Chief Justice Paul Newby. “Accordingly, there was a factual basis for defendant’s plea to each assault and the trial court properly entered each judgment and sentence against defendant.”

Newby shared the case’s grisly details. “One need not ‘imagine,’ as the majority does, that a distinct interruption ‘such [as] a change in location’ occurred in this case,” he wrote. “Rather, the evidence demonstrates exactly the hypothetical situation posited by the majority — one assault occurred in the bathroom, and then defendant chased [the victim] into the bedroom and assaulted her again. Moreover, after defendant strangled [the victim], causing her to black out, the ‘lapse of time and interruption in momentum’ imagined by the majority occurred until [she] awoke. Defendant then assaulted [her] a third time.”

Republican justices would have allowed the guilty plea and Robinson’s sentence to stand.

The Farook and Robinson cases represent two of the 12 partisan splits among state Supreme Court justices this year. Those splits account for almost 20% of the court’s total opinions.

Both cases display contrasting judicial philosophies about the treatment of convicted criminals.

The differences could prove helpful to voters. Two Supreme Court seats are on the ballot in November. North Carolinians will decide whether Democratic or Republican justices will constitute a majority on the state’s highest court next year.

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

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