North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Deborah Ross speaks at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton in Charlotte, N.C. on July 5, 2016.
CNN  — 

On the campaign trail, North Carolina Senate candidate Deborah Ross says she stands shoulder-to-shoulder with women victimized by sexual assault.

“Too many women and children in this country and in our state know the fear of an unsafe home,” Ross said last month. “They need someone who will stand with them, not another Washington politician who talks about their safety and votes to undermine it.”

But in the mid-1990s, Ross found herself in a different position, urging the North Carolina courts to impose a lenient sentence on a 13-year-old who sexually assaulted his 23-year-old neighbor – with the victim’s 20-month-old son watching in the same room. The state Supreme Court rejected Ross’ push, sentencing Andre Green to life in prison for what it said was a “heinous” crime.

The two-decade-old case, which has received scant public attention until now, is surfacing as the Democrat finds herself in a surprisingly close race against Republican Sen. Richard Burr – a contest that could now determine the next Senate majority.

Before spending 10 years in the state House, Ross was a top attorney for a decade with the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a liberal group advocating for individual’s constitutional rights. And over the course of four years, Ross made a proactive public and private push to urge the state courts to try Green as a juvenile, something that the state Supreme Court said could have set him free within four years time.

In her friend-of-the-court brief, Ross acknowledged the brutality of the crime and said Green should be punished.

But she argued that if the Supreme Court upheld Green’s conviction, it would create a bad precedent on transferring juveniles to the adult court system. She said doing so with Green would serve “no broad utilitarian goal.”

Green was indicted just two months before a new state law was set to take effect removing mandatory life-time sentences for first-degree sexual offenses. Since the state had also just lowered the age from 14 to 13 where juveniles could be tried as adults, Green would be the first and only 13-year-old in the state sentenced to life for a first-degree sexual offense – something critics like Ross believed amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

“Andre admittedly committed a grave crime, but he is not a street hardened, calculating and experienced and vicious criminal, deserving of life imprisonment at age 13. He could have benefited from five years of rehabilitative services in the juvenile court system,” said the brief, which was signed by Ross and two other attorneys. “This case is simply one of the least suitable from going over to adult court.”

But the court disagreed, upholding his conviction on charges of a first-degree sexual offense, burglary and attempted rape for what it called a “highly vicious” crime.

“The cruelty of the attack, its predatory nature toward an essential stranger, defendant’s refusal to accept full responsibility, his difficulty controlling his temper, his previous record and his unsupportive family situation all suggest defendant is not particularly suited to the purpose and type of rehabilitation dominant in the juvenile system,” the court, in a 4-3 ruling, said.

Ross declined to be interviewed about her views on the case. But in a statement Friday, Ross told CNN that Green “needed to be locked up.”

“I have worked to protect women and families my entire career and have personally supported rape survivors,” Ross said in the statement. “As I said at the time, this rape was a violent crime and the perpetrator needed to be locked up. I know how important it is for justice to be served in these tragedies and of course violent criminals should be put behind bars.”

Ross’ campaign argued that the candidate had long pushed for stricter penalties for sex crimes. Officials cited her push for minimum prison sentences for adults who commit sex crimes against children, her effort to bring the state into compliance with the Violence Against Women Act and cosponsoring legislation to bolster law enforcement efforts to track domestic violence.

Asked about the Green case, Helen Hare, a senior communications adviser for the Ross campaign, said research shows that children sent to adult prisons may ultimately “undermine public safety.”

“ACLU’s engagement in the case in no way disputed the survivor’s clear need for justice,” Hare said. “Instead, it raised a serious question about a scenario in which any child as young as 13 could be tried as an adult and sentenced to life in adult prison, without so much as the application of clear, objective standards across cases.”

Gruesome crime and an ‘unsuccessful’ rape attempt

According to court documents and the police report reviewed by CNN, Green broke a glass door to enter his neighbor’s home in the middle of a rainy night in 1994, after stalking her for six weeks. She immediately called 911, but Green - who was large for his age, standing at roughly 5-foot-10, 180 pounds – ripped the phone out of the socket. He swung at her with a broomstick, which broke apart after it hit a golf club she was using to defend herself.

Green punched the woman upwards of 15 times, tore off her clothes and used his fingers to penetrate her, while performing oral sex on her. The victim accused Green of penetrating her “once or twice” with his penis, according to court documents. He only stopped when the police arrived, running out the front door of the house – despite threatening to “rip her insides out,” the records say. She was badly injured and bruised, while her son who witnessed the attack, she said, was emotionally scarred.

In her amicus brief to the state Supreme Court, Ross contended that Green came from a broken home, had no criminal past and had a very low IQ – and would benefit from years of rehabilitation through the juvenile system. The brief argued that Green “unsuccessfully” attempted to rape the victim.

“Andre, a borderline retarded child of thirteen with no previous criminal history, broke and entered into the victim’s home and upon being discovered by the female victim, attempted, unsuccessfully, to rape her,” Ross’ brief said. “When confronted by police, Andre confessed the crime.”

Ross and attorneys said in the brief that they believed that the attempted rape is a serious crime and that Green should be punished.

“But when it is committed by a borderline retarded 13-year-old with no previous criminal record, the child’s best interest in this situation needs to be fully and completely assessed before the transfer decision is made,” the brief said. It added that he was transferred to adult court in a manner “totally lacking in fundamental fairness,” they argued.

In 1994, the Justice Department used the term “unsuccessful” in characterizing attempted rape cases, something lawyers cited as well in court.

A five-month window

Soon after Green was indicted in 1994, Ross urged the ACLU Legal Committee to consider helping the teen’s cause, making the case in a private memo about the implications for trying him as an adult. She also petitioned an appeals court that year in an attempt to argue against trying Green as an adult, while also working directly with Green’s defense attorney to discuss strategy, according to memos reviewed by CNN.

And part of her argument centered on the fact that Green’s crime occurred in a five-month window – in between the time the state lowered the age to 13 for juveniles to be tried as adults and right before the removal of mandatory life-time sentences for first-degree sexual offenses.

Ross had a sympathetic North Carolina justice in Henry Frye, who dissented from the majority opinion by saying that a life sentence for Green amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment. He also said it was unfair for Green to be subject to such a stiff offense right before the law removing the mandatory life sentences took effect.

But in the majority opinion, the court flatly disagreed.

“The fact that defendant was the only thirteen-year-old who chose to commit this heinous offense and thereby suffer the otherwise uniform and acceptable punishment prescribed is due to his own timing and nothing more than happenstance,” it said.