Cheri Beasley’s Record Is On Trial

On an unseasonably warm afternoon in late September 2005, a uniformed police officer walked into a classroom at Chapel Hill’s Smith Middle School. He pulled a 13-year-old seventh grader from class and took him to a conference room. 

Behind closed doors, the officer asked the student—identified as J.D.B.—about a pair of recent break-ins. J.D.B., a student in the special education program, at first denied any involvement. Confronted about a stolen camera in his possession, he asked whether he’d “still be in trouble” if he returned the “stuff.” Warned that he could be, he confessed. Only then was he told he could refuse to answer the officer’s questions.

In an Orange County court, J.D.B.’s public defender argued that he was in custody when he confessed, which would have triggered his Miranda rights to remain silent. The trial judge disagreed. He found J.D.B. guilty of breaking and entering, and larceny. The state Court of Appeals concurred.

So began a case that would become a national landmark in American juvenile law—in large part because of a solitary dissent by then-Appeals Court Judge Cheri Beasley.

Beasley, 56, served more than two decades as a judge, rising in 2019 to chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. In 2020, she lost reelection to Republican Paul Newby by 401 votes in one of North Carolina’s closest statewide races ever. She’s now the Democratic nominee in the U.S. Senate race.

During her two decades on the bench, Beasley dealt with a wide range of cases from racial discrimination and redistricting to sex crimes, entrapment, and repressed memory. There were complex business cases and disputes about adoption, divorce, and property distribution. Sometimes she voted to uphold convictions and sometimes she dissented. 

Republican critics have accused her of judicial activism and undermining faith in the legal system. The National Republican Senatorial Committee already has run ads claiming that Beasley has been soft on crime by overturning convictions. Beasley and her Democratic allies have responded in ads of their own.

“My responsibility really has been to live up to my oath that I took to respect the rule of law and uphold the Constitution,” Beasley told The Assembly. “And I feel good about the fact that we've done that.” 

The Assembly looked at dozens of appellate cases she heard, including those in which she wrote the majority opinion or dissent. The Assembly focused on Beasley’s appellate record because the record is much clearer than in district court, where she served for nearly a decade. 

Cheri Beasley speaks on the night of North Carolina's Democratic primary.

Cheri Beasley speaks on the night of North Carolina's Democratic primary.

A review of her appellate cases reveals a judge who was independent and hard to label. Lawyers who’ve appeared before her, as well as some former colleagues, describe her as thorough, fair, and even-handed. 

Michael Crowell, a retired attorney who taught at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government, said there were some appellate judges who he typically expected to rule a certain way. 

“I’ve never had that sense about Beasley,” he said. “She just never struck me as someone who was particularly doctrinaire. What you want on any court is a judge who is open-minded, doesn’t have a preconceived notion of how things will go, and is smart enough to understand the arguments. I would put her in that category.”

In J.D.B.’s case, the state appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the teen was not in custody at the time he confessed. By that standard, they said, the officer did not have to read him his Miranda rights. 

Barely three months after joining the court, Beasley was the lone dissenter. She said it was “absurd” to apply the same standard “regardless of whether the individual was eight or thirty-eight years old.” She cited an earlier case that said, “Juveniles are not, after all, miniature adults.”

Beasley’s dissent automatically sent the case to the N.C. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower court’s decision. 

But in 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Beasley. Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said a child’s perception of “custody” is different than that of adults, which she said should be “self-evident to anyone who was a child once himself, including any police officer or judge.”

Eric Zogry, North Carolina’s state juvenile defender, says Beasley’s logic was crucial to the case being overturned, “not just her dissent but the way she talked about the case.”

National youth advocates call J.D.B. v. North Carolina a seminal case in juvenile law. But that was just the start of Beasley’s time as an appellate judge. 

She would vote in many other cases, which together are the foundation of her record in public life. It’s a judicial career she wants to leverage to the U.S. Senate—and one her opponents will exploit to try to derail her. 

***

A former public defender, Beasley’s judicial career began in 1999 when she was appointed to district court in her home county of Cumberland, which has a reputation for being the toughest district in the state.

She heard a range of cases including traffic, juvenile, and misdemeanor criminal offenses. There were also cases of child abuse and neglect, problems exacerbated in a military community faced with the stress of frequent deployments.

She won election to the N.C. Court of Appeals in 2008. Four years later, Gov. Bev Perdue appointed her to a vacancy on the state Supreme Court and she was elected to a full term in 2014. Gov. Roy Cooper named her chief justice in 2019.

In the week following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, downtown Raleigh—like cities across the country—exploded with violence. Windows were shattered. Tear gas clouded the air just down the street from the Supreme Court’s building. Days after the killing, Beasley donned her robe and took her seat in the chamber for a rare news conference.

“Too many people believe that there are two kinds of justice. They believe it because that is their lived experience,” she said. “In our courts, African Americans are more harshly treated, more severely punished, and more likely to be presumed guilty.”

Courts, she added, “must openly acknowledge the disparities” and work to eliminate them. 

Republicans quickly criticized her comments. 

“In casting aspersions on the court system as a whole, the chief justice impugned the reputation of every judge, prosecutor, clerk, probation officer, magistrate and law enforcement officer who has dedicated their life to the cause of justice, as well as countless everyday citizens that honorably serve as jurors,” Dallas Woodhouse, a former executive director of the state GOP, wrote in The Carolina Journal.

More than a year later, an appellate judge invoked Beasley’s comments in a case involving a Black motorist from Iredell County charged with drug possession. The motorist’s lawyer questioned whether bias had played a role in the initial traffic stop. 

Appeals Court Judge Jefferson Griffin, a Republican, said the lawyer was suggesting that people “are treated differently under our laws based on the color of their skin.

“I reject this argument,” Griffin wrote. “It is hard to blame Defendant for raising this argument. The brief quoted former North Carolina Chief Justice Beasley, who also implied … that our justice system does not treat people equally in the courtroom based on the color of their skin … It also encourages and charges the courts to become an active body by involving our judicial branch in policy decisions. The judiciary should at all times practice judicial restraint.”

Others say Beasley did exercise judicial restraint. 

“I never saw her as much of an activist,” said former Justice Bob Orr, a longtime Republican who recently left that party. “I think she’s a pretty conservative person individually and a pretty conservative person judicially. She certainly was no activist judge.”

Beasley told The Assembly it was her role as chief justice to advocate for fairness.  

Cheri Beasley campaigns at a polling location in Pittsboro, North Carolina on the primary election day.

Cheri Beasley campaigns at a polling location in Pittsboro, North Carolina on the primary voting day.

Cheri Beasley campaigns at a polling location in Pittsboro, North Carolina on the primary voting day. Photos by Cornell Watson.

“It was important to keep communities safe, to be thoughtful about addressing outcomes and cases,” she said, “and to really make sure that we were instilling trust and confidence in our courts.” 

Former Justice Bob Hunter, a Republican, doesn’t believe labels fit Beasley or most judges.

“Those terms are meaningless if you’re trying to apply the law as opposed to when you’re making the law,” he said.

Three days after Beasley’s news conference, race and equity were again on the docket.

***  

Andrew Ramseur was 19 when he shot and killed two people during a botched robbery at a Statesville convenience store. The victims were white. Ramseur is Black. 

In 2007, an all-white jury convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death. Later, Ramseur petitioned for relief under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act.

The law, passed in 2009 by a Democratic General Assembly, allowed death-row prisoners to instead serve life in prison if they could prove racial discrimination played a role in their trial. It was repealed in 2013 after Republicans took over the legislature. A year later, a trial court said that the repeal nullified Ramseur’s claims.

In 2020, the state Supreme Court ruled that Ramseur and other death-row inmates who filed for relief in court before the Racial Justice Act was repealed could continue with their cases. The same day, the state's high court made a similar decision in the case of another death row inmate, Rayford Burke.

Beasley didn’t write the opinions but voted with the majority. The decisions meant that more than 100 death row inmates could still challenge their sentences under the Racial Justice Act. (The state has not executed an inmate since 2006 because of a de facto moratorium prompted by a series of lawsuits.)

Two months later, the court ruled in another case involving the Racial Justice Act. 

Marcus Robinson was arrested in the death of a 17-year-old high school student who had been shot in the face with a shotgun. 

In 1994, Robinson was convicted of murder. At 21, he was among the youngest people ever sentenced to death in North Carolina. He also became the first to claim bias under the Racial Justice Act.

A Cumberland County judge found in 2012 that racial bias had indeed tainted Robinson’s conviction and sentence, and he nullified the death sentence. But after the law’s repeal the following year, Robinson’s death sentence, and that of three other death-row inmates, was reinstated. 

Beasley wrote for the 4-3 majority that reimposing those sentences after repeal of the Racial Justice Act amounted to double jeopardy.

In her opinion, Beasley catalogued the historical bias against African Americans, including lynchings, Jim Crow laws, and the exclusion of Black North Carolinians from jury duty.

“She was really putting into context why we needed the [Racial Justice Act],” said Gretchen Engel, executive director of The Center for Death Penalty Litigation, a nonprofit based in Durham. “I found her opinion in Robinson to be entirely consistent with what she’s calling out to judges and lawyers, that we need to do better.”

Newby, who was running against Beasley for chief justice, wrote a blistering dissent.

“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’),” Newby wrote. “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.” 

In her final days as chief, Beasley made some changes to address the state’s history of racial inequity. 

Cheri Beasley gives a speech after winning the primaries in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Cheri Beasley gives a speech after winning the Democratic primary in Raleigh, North Carolina. Photo by Cornell Watson.

A week before she left office in December 2020, workers removed a portrait that hung prominently behind the dais. It pictured Thomas Ruffin, a 19th century chief justice who was also a slave owner and trafficker.

Days later, Beasley created the Chief Justice’s Commission on Fairness and Equity, which she said would work “to guarantee full civic participation in our society and (end) disparate treatment and outcomes in our courts.” The commission’s work is ongoing. 

***

The J.D.B. case wasn’t the only time a Beasley dissent led to a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision. 

Lester Packingham was a 21-year-old college student in 2002 when he pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a 13-year-old girl. He was forced to register as a sex offender and banned by state law from accessing social media sites, including Facebook.

In 2010, a Durham police officer investigated sex offenders who were using such sites. One was Packingham, who was indicted and later convicted of violating the law that barred offenders from using social media. He appealed, saying the law violated his First Amendment rights.

In State v. Packingham, the state Supreme Court said the statute was “constitutional in all respects.”

Beasley joined Justice Robin Hudson in her dissent, which called the law “overbroad under the First Amendment.” In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Hudson and Beasley. 

In an 8-0 ruling, the high court said the government “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech … That is what North Carolina has done here.” 

Free speech advocates called Packingham v. North Carolina a major test of free speech in the Internet age. “Your decisions are really validated when the U.S. Supreme Court says you’re correct,” says Missy Owen, a criminal defense attorney from Charlotte.

Later, Beasley wrote the opinion in another sex-crime case—drawing a dissent from a fellow Democrat. The case is now featured in a Republican TV ad. 

In 2013, a grand jury indicted Michael Lee White of Graham County on a charge of sexually molesting a 7-year-old girl who, with her mother, was living with him in his trailer, according to court records. 

Two years later, a grand jury issued another indictment that replaced the previous charges, and referred to the girl as “Victim 1.”  Lee was convicted and sentenced to 25 to 30 years in prison.

He appealed, arguing that the second indictment was invalid because it referred to the girl not by name but as “Victim 1.” The appeals court disagreed.

But in 2019’s State v. White, the N.C. Supreme Court effectively nullified the conviction.

“The statutory language is clear and unambiguous,” Beasley wrote for the court. “(I)t requires that the child be named as part of the allegations in the indictment … The phrase ‘Victim #1’ does not distinguish this victim from other children or victims.”

Dissenting were Newby and Democratic Justice Michael Morgan, who called Beasley’s opinion “a narrow and rigid interpretation” of the law.

The White case, like the Robinson murder case, are subjects of the ad by the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The ad talks about the victims and says, “Chief Justice Cheri Beasley failed to protect them … We can’t can’t trust Cheri Beasley to protect our families.” The ad promises more revelations about her record. 

“They know that this race is very competitive,” Beasley said. “These are tough cases that came before our court and I took an oath as judge to follow the law, to apply it fairly and impartially, and to respect the rule of law and the Constitution.”

Owen, the defense attorney, says Beasley simply applied the law.

“The appellate courts aren’t a place to be easy on defendants or tough on defendants; that’s not their job,” Owen says. “Their job is reviewing the record.”

Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst with the conservative John Locke Foundation, says Republicans are also reviewing the record, especially after a new TV ad in which Beasley promises to “never stop fighting to make North Carolina safe.”

“If she’s going to be relying on her record as a justice and is going to be pointing to things she did [that] were good for public safety, you can pretty much guarantee that people on the other side are going to be poring through the record and looking for cases and decisions that point in the opposite decision,” he said.

A Beasley TV ad blasts Republicans for “false ads that distort cases from the thousands she heard as a judge.” Another ad is part of a $1.3 million buy by the Senate Majority PAC, an arm of Senate Democrats. It features statements by some N.C. sheriffs attacking the GOP ads as false and “disgraceful.”

“Truth is,” a narrator says, “Judge Beasley’s cracked down on violent criminals her entire career.”

Beasley upheld many convictions. One came in 2017’s State v. Walston.

In 2012, a Dare County jury found Robert Timothy Walston Sr. guilty of first-degree rape of a child and five counts of taking indecent liberties with a child. The judge had rejected Walston’s request to have an expert testify on repressed memory and “the suggestibility of children.” The state Court of Appeals disagreed and ordered a new trial.

The state Supreme Court, however, upheld the judge’s original decision. “The trial court properly acted as a gatekeeper in determining the admissibility of expert testimony,” Beasley wrote for the court.

***

Assessing a judicial record, especially over two decades, is not simple.

North Carolina Lawyers Weekly hasn’t offered a comprehensive analysis of state Supreme Court decisions since 2014, when it reviewed the court’s 44 written opinions from the previous 21 months. The Weekly found a surprising amount of agreement. In 25 of the cases, the vote was unanimous. 

Analyzing how many times justices voted together, it found Beasley and Newby voted alike 65 percent of the time, the lowest “similarity” score among the seven justices. 

Running for reelection in 2014, a progressive group asked Beasley whether she was a conservative or liberal. “If forced to choose a label, I’m liberal,” she wrote in response. “I firmly believe in the pursuit of equality for all.”

In high-profile cases, like those involving the Racial Justice Act or political redistricting, Beasley usually sided with justices from her party. 

In an interview, Beasley said she doesn’t have a judicial philosophy. 

“My path was really to uphold the rule of law, to take my oath very seriously and to really have the values that have been instilled in me all of my life, hard work and service and appreciating my obligation to the communities around me.”

Cheri Beasley gives a supporter a hug after winning the Democratic primary.

Cheri Beasley gives a supporter a hug after winning the Democratic primary. Photo by Cornell Watson.

Attorneys and other court-watchers say her politics were rarely on display. Christie Cameron Roeder served as Supreme Court clerk for 27 years and worked with seven chiefs and dozens of justices.

“It was hard to tell the propensities of some of the judges, including her,” Roeder says. “[T]hey just seemed to look at the cases that came up and do a good job of following the law and precedent. Every case comes in with a different set of facts and issues. And she appeared to me to be very careful in judicially applying the law that was before her.”

Sometimes Beasley would cite not only the letter of the law but the punctuation.

In one 2020 case, in which lawyers argued over the meaning of a law, she devoted four pages of her opinion to the law’s use of commas, and how different grammatical structures could lead to different interpretations.

Eddie Speas, a private attorney and former state Justice Department official, calls Beasley “solid, middle of the road, knowledgeable about the law, (and) buttressed by a good, solid dose of common sense.”

Former Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a Democrat whom Beasley was appointed to replace, said terms like “judicial philosophy” are overused.

“People throw out that phrase an awful lot, and some judges have bought into that,” she said. “But others don’t buy into it … They review the evidence, know the law, apply the law, and be fair and impartial. From what I have seen of Chief Justice Beasley as trial judge, an intermediate appellate judge and chief justice, I believe that’s what she does.”

Unlike many candidates this fall, Beasley has no record of votes in Congress, the General Assembly, or even a city council. What she does have is a record of votes from the bench. Some helped break new legal ground. Some were controversial.

In her years as a judge, Beasley never presided over a jury trial. Now, as a U.S. Senate candidate, she’ll have to face a jury herself—North Carolina’s seven million registered voters.  

***

Jim Morrill covered politics for The Charlotte Observer for 37 years. Follow him on Twitter @jimmorrill.

Correction: This article originally said Marcus Robinson was the youngest person sentenced to death in North Carolina in 1994 when he was 21. Leon Brown was 16 when he was sentenced to death in 1984. Brown was later exonerated and released when DNA evidence implicated another man.