Racial Justice Act spares 1st inmate from death sentence

Cumberland County decision means death row inmate’s sentence will be converted to life without possibility of parole. Prosecutors plan to appeal.

ablythe@newsobserver.com April 20, 2012 

  • Title: Senior resident Superior Court judge in Cumberland County.

    On the bench: 23 years. Recently announced plans to retire at the end of this year.

    Other legal jobs: Weeks worked several years in private practice and was an assistant Cumberland County public defender for 10 years.

    Cases he has presided over: In the mid-1990s, he presided over the court proceedings in Robeson County against the two men accused of killing James Jordan, father of basketball star Michael Jordan.

    Background: A native of Trenton, N.J.; 1977 graduate of the UNC-Chapel Hill law school.

  • Marcus R. Robinson, 39, was convicted in August 1994 of kidnapping Erik Tornblom, 17, 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.

— Marcus Reymond Robinson will soon gather his few belongings from the cell on North Carolina’s death row where he has spent the past 18 years and make a historic move to a maximum-security prison cell.

The 39-year-old convicted murderer is the first North Carolina death row inmate to have his sentence converted to life without possibility of parole using the state’s fledgling and unique Racial Justice Act.

Under the 2-1/2-year-old law, Judge Gregory Weeks was able to weigh statistics while considering Robinson’s claims that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentence.

Prosecutors announced plans to appeal the Robinson decision, a challenge that could slow rulings in similar claims from 154 other death row inmates.

Weeks, Cumberland County’s chief resident Superior Court judge, read a summary of his findings Friday in a courtroom full of people keenly aware that they were witnessing a landmark ruling.

Robinson, wearing a white shirt and light-colored pants, sat at a table with his lawyers. The family of Erik Tornblom, the man Robinson killed in 1994, watched silently, though the disappointment showing on their faces spoke volumes. The family left the courthouse without commenting.

Weeks said that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor” in the selection of a jury for Robinson’s trial.

Prosecutors, according to a Michigan State University Law School study, used peremptory challenges to remove blacks from juries more than twice as often throughout North Carolina as they used them for whites.

In Cumberland County, it was almost three times as often.

“When the government’s choice of jurors is tainted with racial bias, that overt wall casts down over the parties, the jury and the court to adhere to the law throughout the trial,” Weeks said. “The very integrity of the court is jeopardized when a prosecutor’s discrimination invites cynicism respecting the jury’s neutrality and undermines public confidence.”

Effect on other cases

Weeks’ findings that potential black jurors systematically had been left out of the process of capital cases in North Carolina and Cumberland County at the time of Robinson’s trial could play significantly in the cases of other death row inmates. Weeks 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.

Only a few inmates on North Carolina’s death row did not file Racial Justice Act claims.

The ruling, the first of its kind in this country, came two days before the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened the door for states to adopt such laws as the Racial Justice Act.

North Carolina and Kentucky are the only two states that have done so, though.

The Racial Justice Act, which was narrowly adopted in 2009 along party lines, has been praised by supporters as a way to address blatant and subtle racism undermining the integrity of the state’s courts.

Weeks had harsh words for prosecutors, saying the evidence presented earlier this year by Robinson’s attorneys was enough “to support an inference of intentional discrimination.”

The judge and many of the defense lawyers and death penalty critics said they hoped the ruling Friday would mark the beginning of a new chapter in North Carolina justice.

“We had hoped for this decision, we had worked for this decision. We thought the judge’s decision was powerful,” said James Ferguson, a Charlotte civil rights attorney who represented Robinson. “We know our work is not over, but we think this is a beginning.”

District attorneys issued a statement strongly disputing that race is a significant factor in capital murder cases.

Legal scholars and death row critics from across the nation have watched with interest as the Robinson case went through the courts.

“The North Carolina legislation is a commendable attempt to do what the Supreme Court attempted to brush under the tablecloth,” said James Acker, a criminal justice professor at the State University of New York-Albany who is putting on a symposium this weekend about the death penalty and race. He was referring to the 1987 Supreme Court decision that opened the door for states to adopt laws that give judges the authority to consider statistics in racial bias challenges.

Robinson, who has been incarcerated at Central Prison only with death row inmates since his conviction, will move to a general prison population. For the first time in years, he will be among those who are not awaiting execution.

Shirley Burns, Robinson’s mother, described the moment as bittersweet. Her thoughts were with the Tornbloms, but she said the justice system should treat people fairly.

“There’s justice at last,” Shirley Burns said. “You’ve got to treat people right. You’ve got to treat people fair. That’s what we depend on when we go through the system.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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