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April 20, 2012

NC death row defendant prevails in first case decided under state's Racial Justice Act

As reported in this new AP story, which is headlined "Judge: Race played role in NC racial justice case," this morning has brought a high-profile ruling in a high-profile litigation over the application of the death penalty in North Carolina. Here are the basics:

A condemned killer's trial was so tainted by the racially colored decisions of prosecutors that he should be removed from death row and serve a life sentence, a judge ruled Friday in a precedent-setting North Carolina decision.

Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks' decision in the case of Marcus Robinson comes in the first test of a 2009 state law that allows death row prisoners and capital murder defendants to challenge their sentences or prosecutors' decisions with statistics and other evidence....

"The Racial Justice Act represents a landmark reform in capital sentencing in our state," Weeks said in Fayetteville on Friday. "There are those who disagree with this, but it is the law."

Robinson's case is the first of more than 150 pending cases to get an evidentiary hearing before a judge. Prosecutors said Friday they planned to challenge Weeks' decision, and District Attorney Billy West declined further comment while the case was being appealed.

Weeks ruled that race was a factor in prosecution decisions to reject potential black jurors before the murder trial of a black man who was convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991. The jury that convicted Robinson had nine whites, two blacks and one American Indian.

Robinson and co-defendant Roderick Williams Jr. murdered 17-year-old Erik Tornblom after the teen gave his killers a ride from a Fayetteville convenience store. Tornblom was forced to drive to a field where he was shot with a sawed-off shotgun. Robinson came close to death in January 2007, but a judge blocked his scheduled execution. Williams is serving a life sentence.

Central to Robinson's case before Weeks was a study by two law Michigan State University professors who reported that, of almost 160 people on North Carolina's death row, 31 had all-white juries, and 38 had only one person of color....

Robinson defense attorney James Ferguson of Charlotte told Weeks, who decided the case without a jury, that the study showed race was a significant factor in almost every one of North Carolina's prosecutorial districts as prosecutors decided to challenge and eliminate black jurors. "This case is important because it provides an opportunity for all of us to recognize that race far too often has been a significant factor in jury selection in capital cases," Ferguson said when the hearing opened in January....

The Republican-led Legislature tried to repeal the Racial Justice Act earlier this year but failed to override a veto by Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat.

Related posts on NC Racial Justice Act:

UPDATE:  A helpful reader sent me a copy of the 168-page order in this (landmark?) case.  It can be downloaded below, and here is a key paragraph from the introduction:

After considering the evidence and testimony presented to the Court, and the arguments of counsel, the Court makes the following Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law in support of its order finding that race was, in fact, a significant factor in the prosecution's use of peremptory strikes, and thereby granting the Defendant's Motion for Relief Pursuant to the Racial Justice Act, vacating the death sentence, and imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

Download Marcus Robinson RJA Order

April 20, 2012 at 11:03 AM | Permalink

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Comments

I wonder what Bew Perdue has to say to the victim's family. This is garbage. Every single Democrat who voted for this basically urinated on this kid's grave. I hope they're proud of themselves.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 20, 2012 11:23:17 AM

These doofus Democrats really didn't think this through. If racism tainted the prosecutor's actions, then how does the conviction stand?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 20, 2012 11:28:18 AM

federalist says "Every single Democrat who voted for this basically urinated on this kid's grave."

Would you care to link to their sex offender registry page in support of this claim?

Posted by: Anon | Apr 20, 2012 5:29:18 PM

"Central to Robinson's case before Weeks was a study by two law Michigan State University professors who reported that, of almost 160 people on North Carolina's death row, 31 had all-white juries, and 38 had only one person of color...."

How is that logically relevant to the decisions of the prosecutors in this case? If the decisions of prosecutors in other jurisdictions in NC are independent of the decisions in this case, then they shouldn't matter.

Either the law is dumb (i.e., by making relevant what clearly is not) or Judge Weeks is dumb (or has an agenda). What is it about Democrats and saving racist killers from the needle?

Posted by: federalist | Apr 21, 2012 8:15:06 AM

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