Moral Low Ground

US Government

North Carolina Judge Greg Weeks Throws Out Marcus Robinson Death Sentence Under State’s Racial Justice Act

A North Carolina judge has commuted the death sentence of a condemned killer under a landmark law allowing death row inmates to challenge their execution rulings if race was a significant factor.

The Associated Press reports that Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks commuted the death sentence of Marcus Robinson to life imprisonment without parole under the state’s Racial Justice Act, enacted in 2009, which allows death row inmates to challenge their death sentence if race played a important role in “decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed.”

Weeks became the first judge to apply the law, finding racial discrimination in the state’s jury selection process both in Robinson’s and most other death penalty cases with black defendants.

Weeks declared that race played a “persistent, pervasive and distorting role” in jury selection and that “prosecutors have intentionally discriminated” against Robinson and other defendants.

“Race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise preemptory challenges during jury selection,” Judge Weeks told a packed Fayetteville courtroom after two months of deliberation.

“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,” James Ferguson, Robinson’s defense attorney, told the AP.

Robinson relied heavily on a Michigan State University study that analyzed data from 173 different death penalty cases. The study found that nonwhite potential jurors were twice as likely to be stricken than whites in North Carolina. The odds of this occurring in a race-neutral environment is one in 10,000,000, a statistic Judge Weeks called “staggering.”

Weeks ruled that race was a significant factor in the prosecution’s decision to strike potential black jurors before Robinson’s murder trial. Robinson and co-defendant Roderick Williams, Jr. were convicted of killing white teenager Erik Tornblom, who was 17, in 1991.

The jury that found Robinson guilty was comprised of nine whites, two blacks and one Native American.

Robinson’s is the first of more than 150 additional cases which are expected to get evidentiary hearings before a judge. Prosecutors have announced their intention to challenge Judge Week’s ruling in the Robinson case.

Republicans in the state legislature unsuccessfully attempted to repeal the Racial Justice Act earlier this year; Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed their bill.

Judge Weeks said he hopes that North Carolina’s unique law– only Kentucky has a similar measure on the books– would go a long way to healing a centuries-old legacy of racial injustice.

“It is the hope of this Court,” he said, “that we now are at the beginning of the end of the struggle to end racial discrimination in our justice system.”

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