FAYETTEVILLE — Race may have been an unconscious factor, but it was never a significant one in jury selection, said a former prosecutor testifying at a death row prisoner's hearing challenging his punishment.
District Court Judge John Dickson testified under cross-examination Monday in the first evidentiary hearing involving the Racial Justice Act, which allows death row prisoners and defendants facing the death penalty to use statistics and other evidence to show racial bias played a significant role in their sentences or prosecutors' decision to pursue the death penalty.
The law says if the claim is successful, the prisoner's death sentence is reduced to life in prison without parole.
The hearing involves the case of Marcus Robinson, a black man convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991.
Testimony at his trial in 1994 showed he had said something to the effect that "he was going to get him a whitey," prosecutor Rob Thompson said Monday.
The hearing, expected to last at least another week, addresses Robinson's claim that race was a significant factor in prosecutors' decisions to reject potential jurors who were black.
Robinson also claims race was a factor in the prosecutors' decisions to seek the death penalty against accused murderers and that the victims' race was a factor in whether juries issued death sentences.
Ferguson repeatedly asked Dickson about racial bias in jury selection.
Dickson testified that he has seen assistant district attorneys use race in jury selection and that he believes racism still exists, even in the criminal justice system, although not to the extent it once did.
Earlier, under questioning by prosecutors, Dickson testified that in Robinson's case he excluded five black potential jurors and forwarded another five to the defense for consideration.
Robinson's victim, 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, was shot in the face after he agreed to give Robinson and another man a ride from a convenience store. A co-defendant, Roderick Williams, is serving a life sentence.
Thompson said his evidence would show black potential jurors had the same chance of serving on Robinson's jury as whites.