A Cumberland County judge is scheduled to announce his ruling Friday in the case of the first death row inmate to test the Racial Justice Act.
Legal scholars, lawyers and politicians have been waiting since mid-February for Judge Gregory Weeks to issue his decision in the case of Marcus Reymond Robinson.
Whatever he rules, his decision will be historic.
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 the state’s fledgling Racial Justice Act, the country’s only law that allows judges to consider statistics when considering whether racial bias played a role in jury selection or sentencing.
The law, adopted in 2009 on narrow party lines, has been controversial from the outset.
Prosecutors and Republican state legislators have called it a backdoor attempt to repeal the death penalty. Not only can inmates cite statistical patterns in the county or court district where their case was heard, they can use statewide numbers as they try to show their jury selection or sentencing was racially biased.
Robinson’s challenge of his death sentence was heard in a Cumberland County courtroom over two and a half weeks in January and February.
Robinson, 38, was convicted in August 1994 of kidnapping 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, 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 earlier this year 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 Racial Justice Act 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 other 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 in Fayetteville, 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.