Racial Justice Act case hearing ends

First case under law is in judge's hands

ablythe@newsobserver.comFebruary 16, 2012 

A hearing in the first Racial Justice Act case ended with a flourish of historic references Wednesday as prosecutors and defense lawyers spoke of Athenian justice, race relations in the armed forces and famous civil rights cases in their closing arguments.

But as Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks mulls his ruling, he may spend more time considering statistics and numbers than arguments.

On Wednesday, after two and a half weeks of testimony in Fayetteville from statisticians, researchers, prosecutors and District Court judges, the closing arguments concluded the hearing on a request for sentencing relief from Marcus Reymond Robinson, a death row inmate.

Robinson claims that racial bias played a role in the selection of his jury and his death sentence. His case, filed under a fledgling and controversial state law, is the first of 155 similar complaints filed by death row inmates to be heard.

Until lawmakers in North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009, judges could not consider statistics when weighing claims of racial bias in prosecution and sentencing.

Federal law provides avenues for arguing bias claims, but without verbal or written acknowledgements from prosecutors, jurors or others that race, indeed, was a factor, racial bias can be difficult to demonstrate.

Robinson, 38, was convicted in August 1994 of kidnapping Erik Tornblom, 17, in 1991, stealing his car and $27, and shooting him to death. Robinson and his accomplice in the crime, who received a life sentence, are black. Tornblom was white.

Defense attorneys for Robinson argued that prosecutors struck blacks from the jury pool at a much higher rate than whites. The jury that sent Robinson to death row included nine white jurors, one American Indian and two blacks, according to court filings.

In selecting that panel, Robinson's defense team claimed, prosecutors struck half the blacks eligible for the jury and only 15 percent of those who were not black.

The hearing included testimony from dueling statisticians and researchers.

Defense attorneys used a sweeping study of capital cases in North Carolina done by Michigan State University law school researchers to bolster their claims.

That study found that qualified black jurors - those not released for cause, such as opposition to the death penalty - were struck by prosecutors at nearly twice the rate as qualified white jurors. In Cumberland County, they were struck at 2.6 times the rate, according to the researchers.

Prosecutors called prosecutors, judges and a political scientist to bolster their claims that race is not among their considerations when weighing whether to strike a potential juror.

Christopher Cronin, a political scientist from Methodist University, testified that the Michigan State study did not take into account the political and ideological views of jurors. African-Americans, he said, are often more politically liberal, oppose the death penalty and have a deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement and the justice system.

It could be weeks before the Cumberland County judge rules in a case that legal scholars are watching.

North Carolina is one of only two states with such a law.

Advocates and critics of the law are not going to just sit back and wait for the ruling, they said Wednesday.

The Racial Justice Act, passed narrowly along party lines when the Democrats were in power in the state legislature, has been the subject of recent controversy.

The 2-1/2-week hearing came about two months after an attempt by the Republican-led legislature to gut the historic act, but Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, used her veto power to halt the effort.

Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, said he plans to be vocal about his support of the act.

"No sitting and waiting for me," Dear said Wednesday. "I am telling everybody who cares about the insidious effects of racial bias in our justice system to urge the lawmakers to allow this law to work."

Susan Doyle, the Johnston County district attorney who is president of the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, plans to work for amendments to the law.

Though she did not attend the hearing, she said she worried that the Racial Justice Act was a veiled attempt to do away with the death penalty in North Carolina. Prosecutors led the recent effort to gut the law.

"The Racial Justice Act has nothing to do with race or justice," Doyle said Wednesday. "It's a back-door attempt to overturn the death penalty in North Carolina."

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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