North Carolina judge vacates death penalty under racial justice law

April 22, 2012
By David Zucchino, Los Angeles TimesFAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — In a landmark ruling, a North Carolina judge on Friday vacated the death penalty of a black man convicted of murder, saying prosecutors across the state had engaged in deliberate and systematic racial discrimination when striking black potential jurors in death penalty cases.

The ruling was the first under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, which allows judges to reduce death sentences to life in prison without parole when defendants can prove racial bias in jury selection. Prosecutors had fought the act, the nation’s only such law, calling it a back-door attempt to overturn the death penalty.

The decision by Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks in Cumberland County, N.C., could have an effect on death penalty cases nationwide; for years, such cases have included arguments by black defendants and civil rights lawyers that prosecutors keep blacks off juries for 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 peremptory strikes in capital cases.” He ruled that discrimination was a factor not only in the case he heard, involving convicted murderer Marcus Reymond Robinson, but also in other capital cases involving black defendants across North Carolina.

Weeks, who is black, said “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” statewide during the time Robinson was on trial. That was enough, he said, “to support an inference of intentional discrimination.”

Richard Dieter, director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, called the ruling historic. “It could reverberate around the country,” he said, noting that studies in at least 25 states with death penalties have found evidence of racial bias in jury selection or sentencing.

Weeks said discrimination by prosecutors had undermined public confidence in the state’s court system and infringed on the rights of defendants of all races. He said he hoped the Racial Justice Act would be a first step to “eliminate discrimination in our system of justice.”

The act allows inmates to cite statistical patterns in jury selection statewide to argue that racial bias was used in selecting their juries. Robinson’s lawyers relied heavily on a Michigan State University statistical analysis of jury selection procedures in cases across the state during the time of Robinson’s trial. The study found that prosecutors struck blacks from jury pools at more than twice the rate of whites.

Robinson, sentenced to death in 1994 for killing a white teenager in 1991, was resentenced by Weeks to life in prison without parole. Robinson, 38, is among 150 death row inmates, both white and black, who have filed appeals under the act. Defense attorneys said three of those cases are in the courts and could be heard soon.

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