The New York Times has posted, "Judge Blocks Death Sentence Under Law on Race Disparity," by Campbell Robertson.
Concluding that racial bias played a significant factor in the sentencing of man to death here 18 years ago, a judge on Friday ordered that the man’s sentence be reduced to life in prison without parole, the first such decision under North Carolina’s controversial Racial Justice Act.
Reading a summary of his ruling from the bench, Judge Gregory A. Weeks of Cumberland County Superior Court said that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” at the time of the trial of the inmate, Marcus Reymond Robinson. The disparity was strong enough, the judge said, “as to support an inference of intentional discrimination.”
From the jury box where they sat, the relatives of the man Mr. Robinson killed, Erik Tornblom, watched in disappointed silence. Mr. Robinson, wearing all white, was seated with his lawyers, his head lowered as the judge read his ruling.
The state said it would appeal.
The landmark ruling is expected to be the first of many under the law, which allows defendants and death row inmates to present evidence, including statistical patterns, that race played a major role in their being sentenced to death.
Over the course of the hearing, lawyers for Mr. Robinson presented the findings of a study by Michigan State University researchers showing that prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove blacks from juries more than twice as often as they used such challenges against whites. The study, which Judge Weeks called valid and reliable, found that disparity existed statewide, and to an even greater degree here in Cumberland County and in Mr. Robinson’s trial in particular.
Ann Blythe posts, "Judge sides with inmate in Racial Justice Act ruling," at the Raleigh News & Observer.
A Cumberland County judge issued a historic ruling Friday morning, finding that racial bias played a role in the trial and sentencing of death row inmate Marcus Reymond Robinson.
Judge Gregory Weeks announced his decision in the case of the first death row inmate to test the fledgling and unique Racial Justice Act.
In a lengthy ruling, Weeks said that potential black jurors had systematically been left out of the process of capital cases in North Carolina and Cumberland County at the time of Robinson’s trial. He said such decisions by prosecutors to strike African-Americans from potential jury pools undermined the courts and had a sweeping impact on the integrity and trust the community could place in the process.
The ruling means Robinson’s sentence was immediately converted to life without possibility for parole.
But whether the ruling ultimately stands is something that higher courts are likely to decide.
Prosecutors have 60 days to appeal.
Robinson, a black man convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991, is the first death row inmate to have his sentence-challenge heard using one of the country’s only two laws that allows judges to consider statistics when considering whether racial bias played a role in jury selection or sentencing.
The North Carolina law, adopted in 2009 on narrow party lines, has been controversial from the outset.
In a remarkable victory over racial bias in the death penalty, Marcus Robinson will not be executed by the State of North Carolina but will instead spend the rest of his life in prison after a judge ruled today that his death sentence was tainted by racial discrimination in jury selection. The central dispute in Robinson's case, the first test under North Carolina's new Racial Justice Act, boiled down to a fundamental question: is it fair to use statistical evidence to show racial bias in capital jury selection?
In Robinson's case, powerful statistical evidence of racial bias in jury selection was introduced, including a study from Michigan State University finding that North Carolina prosecutors were twice as likely to remove qualified Black jurors from jury service as other jurors, even after the researchers controlled for alternative explanations such as criminal background or reservations about imposing a death sentence.
The state offered no meaningful rebuttal to the statistical evidence. No statistical expert testified for the state that race did not play a role in jury selection. Rather, the State lodged a frontal attack on the concept of statistical evidence itself. In its closing argument, the prosecution argued that the problem with the Robinson's statistical evidence is that it tries "to get people to lose sight of the trees and focus on the forest." At the end of the argument, the prosecution was even more direct: it pleaded with the judge not to make a decision "with respect to the Racial Justice Act based upon numbers."
The State's forest and trees analogy was a useful one. For years, prosecutors have been able to deny discrimination on a tree-by-tree basis — in individual cases — arguing, for example, that the real reason a Black juror was struck was because she was too old. Or too young. Or went to college. Or didn't graduate from high school. But not that she was Black. Under the new legal standard of North Carolina's Racial Justice Act, however, defendants can rely on statistical evidence from cases statewide. What statistics allowed Robinson — and all of us as citizens of North Carolina — to do was compare the prosecutors' explanations across cases. The forest view of North Carolina jury selection is a picture of discrimination. The evidence shows unequivocally that among old people and young, college graduates and high school dropouts, single and married folks, death penalty opponents and supporters, Black jurors were struck at higher rates than their white counterparts. Statistics allowed that picture to come into crystal-clear focus.
The judge's decision is an important victory for more than just Marcus Robinson. Looking back, the Robinson decision is really the first significant win since the Supreme Court dealt a blow to fairness in the death penalty 25 years ago this Sunday, ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp that statistical evidence of systemic racial disparities could not be used to overturn death sentences because such disparities were "inevitable." Today's decision, and the RJA itself, stand as a powerful rebuke to the Supreme Court's defeatist view of discrimination.
Earlier coverage of the Robinson case ruling begins in the preceding post. More on the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in McCleskey is also available.
Related posts are in the race index.