America

In First Test For Racial Justice Act, Judge Commutes Man's Death Sentence

A North Carolina judge commuted the death sentence of convicted murderer Marcus Robinson saying racial bias tainted his trial and sentencing. Instead, Robinson will serve life in prison.

The Los Angeles Times reports this is a "landmark ruling," because it is the first to test the state's controversial Racial Justice Act, which was passed in 2009 and allows convicts to challenge death sentences by proving with statistics and other evidence that their trials were tainted by racial bias.

The Times explains:

"The decision by Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks in Cumberland County, N.C., could help set a precedent nationwide in death penalty cases, which for years have included arguments by black defendants and civil rights lawyers that prosecutors keep blacks off juries for overtly racial reasons.

"In a 167-page order harshly critical of prosecutors, Weeks said they 'intentionally used the race of [jury pool] members as a significant factor in decisions to exercise preemptory strikes in capital cases.' He ruled that discrimination was a factor not only in the case Weeks heard involving convicted murderer Marcus Reymond Robinson, but also in capital cases involving black defendants across North Carolina.

In its press release on the case, the American Civil Liberties Union says this case tested the idea of whether it was fair to use "statistical evidence to show racial bias in capital jury selection."

In Robinson's case, one of the pieces of evidence offered was "a study from Michigan State University finding that North Carolina prosecutors were twice as likely to remove qualified Black jurors from jury service as other jurors, even after the researchers controlled for alternative explanations such as criminal background or reservations about imposing a death sentence."

The ACLU adds:

"The judge's decision is an important victory for more than just Marcus Robinson. Looking back, the Robinson decision is really the first significant win since the Supreme Court dealt a blow to fairness in the death penalty 25 years ago this Sunday, ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp that statistical evidence of systemic racial disparities could not be used to overturn death sentences because such disparities were "inevitable." Today's decision, and the [Racial Justice Act] itself, stand as a powerful rebuke to the Supreme Court's defeatist view of discrimination. It signals both that North Carolina will not tolerate a system of capital punishment built on the back of rampant discrimination and that it is possible to take systemic discrimination seriously."

The Charlotte Observer reports that this ruling will likely be appealed and decided by a higher court. The paper adds that prosecutors and Republicans objected to the Racial Justice Act saying it was "a backdoor attempt to repeal the death penalty."

Robinson, 38, was convicted of kidnapping and killing 17-year-old Erik Tornblom.

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