Bias Law Used to Move a Man Off Death Row
Published: April 20, 2012
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Concluding that racial bias played a significant factor in a death sentence here 18 years ago, a judge on Friday ordered that it be changed to life in prison without parole, the first such decision under North Carolina’s controversial Racial Justice Act.
Related in Opinion
Editorial: Justice Under North Carolina’s Racial Bias Law (April 21, 2012)
Andrew Craft/The Fayetteville Observer, via Associated Press
The landmark ruling could be the first of many under the law, which allows future defendants and current death row inmates to present evidence, including statistical patterns, suggesting that race played a major role in their being sentenced to death.
It is also likely to influence the nation’s enduring discussion over capital punishment, particularly with an increasing number of states deciding to repeal the death penalty outright.
“This opinion will profoundly shape any ongoing debate about this,” said Douglas A. Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University who runs the blog Sentencing and Law Policy. “In a weird way, this ruling vindicates critics of racial justice acts, because they tend to say when we start opening up old cases it will be too easy for the defense bar to prove some kind of racial injustice and therefore stop the death penalty altogether.”
Nearly all of North Carolina’s 157 death row inmates have filed claims under the act.
As both the defendant, Marcus Reymond Robinson, and relatives of the man he killed sat motionless and silent, Judge Gregory A. Weeks of Cumberland County Superior Court declared his finding that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor” in the jury selection process not only in Mr. Robinson’s trial but in trials across the county and state.
Mr. Robinson’s guilt was not at issue. The judge called his crime — kidnapping 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, shooting him and stealing his car and $27 in his wallet — “unspeakably horrendous.”
But a statistical study of racial disparities during jury selection revealed strong enough findings “to support a conclusion of intentional discrimination” at every level, Judge Weeks said in his 167-page ruling.
Prosecutors said they would appeal the decision.
The ruling comes as states around the country are re-evaluating execution as a means of punishment. A week ago, Connecticut’s legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, the fifth state in five years to do so. Californians may soon vote on the issue in a referendum. A group of current and former federal and state prosecutors recently called for a suspension of the death penalty in Kentucky, the only state that has a similar — though narrower — Racial Justice Act.
Prosecutors in North Carolina have strongly opposed the act since its passage in 2009, arguing that the law is far too broad, that it would be extremely costly and that it is little more than an indirect moratorium on the death penalty.
“This is not about racial justice,” said Tom Keith, a former district attorney in Forsyth County. “The real purpose is to end the death penalty, to make it so complicated and so expensive that they win by attrition.”
Supporters of the law disagreed with that reading.
“I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Tye Hunter, executive director of North Carolina’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation and one of Mr. Robinson’s lawyers. What the law does hold, he said, is that “we can’t continue to have a death penalty that depends on discrimination against African-Americans.”
The newly Republican state legislature passed a bill that would have significantly limited the scope of the law, but Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, vetoed it. Republicans are planning to pass a similar law, possibly this year.
By coincidence, Friday’s decision came down two days before the 25th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision McCleskey vs. Kemp, in which the court ruled 5 to 4 that statistical evidence of a significant racial disparity in death sentences in Georgia was not sufficient reason to overturn a Georgia man’s death verdict. Toward the end of his decision, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. said that state legislatures were more qualified to decide how statistics should be used in such cases.
North Carolina’s law allows a defendant to argue that race was a significant factor in his death sentence by presenting evidence along any of three lines: that a death sentence was more likely to be sought or imposed on defendants of one race, that it was more likely when the victim was a certain race or that racial bias influenced jury selection.
Mr. Robinson is black and his victim was white — a fact that was pointed out in closing arguments by prosecutors, who described Mr. Robinson as racially biased for a violently anti-white statement he made before the murder.
But this hearing concerned bias in picking jurors, as opposed to the race of the defendant or the victim. There are three other Racial Justice Act claims now being heard, and in one of the cases the inmate is white