North Carolina Judge Finds Racial Discrimination in Death Penalty, Commutes Death Sentence to Life Without Parole

April 20, 2012 11:43 am

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Ruling Under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act Says No One Should Be Sent to Death Because of Racial Bias

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – A North Carolina judge Friday issued a landmark decision finding intentional and systemic discrimination by state prosecutors against African-American potential jurors in capital cases and commuted the sentence of a death-row prisoner to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The decision on behalf of Marcus Robinson by North Carolina Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks, the first to be issued under the state’s historic Racial Justice Act, comes nearly 25 years to the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCleskey v. Kemp that evidence of systemic bias is not sufficient to challenge a death sentence.

Passed in 2009, the Racial Justice Act allows North Carolina’s 157 death-row prisoners a hearing in which they can present statistics and other evidence that death sentences state- and county-wide were tainted by race discrimination and that their death should be commuted to life in prison.

“Today’s ruling gives a sense of promise that there will be change,” said Cassandra Stubbs, staff attorney for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and part of the legal team that represented Robinson during his almost three-week-long Racial Justice Act hearing earlier this year. “There is now an opportunity for prosecutors to change their practices so that the process of jury selection in North Carolina will reflect the fundamental American values of justice and fairness that we should all expect.”

In his ruling, Weeks found that prosecutors deliberately excluded qualified Black jurors from jury service in death-row inmate Robinson’s case, in Cumberland County and throughout the state.

As directed by the Racial Justice Act, Weeks ruled that parole eligibility was not an option under the Racial Justice Act and resentenced Robinson to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The heart of the statistical evidence presented in the case came from a large study by researchers from Michigan State University that showed that state prosecutors were significantly more likely to strike African-American potential jurors. In a related study, the researchers found that defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white than if the victim is Black.

Today’s ruling and the findings of the Michigan State study are consistent with the findings of every major study of jury selection in capital cases done in the United States.

Robinson, who is Black, was convicted and sentenced to death for killing a white person. During his jury selection process, prosecutors struck from his jury 50 percent of the qualified potential Black jurors while striking just 15 percent of qualified white potential jurors. As a result, Robinson’s 12 person jury included just two African-Americans in a county where they make up nearly 40 percent of the population.

North Carolina, one of 34 states to maintain the death penalty, has the nation’s sixth-largest death row. Well over half of the prisoners on the state’s death row are Black.

“North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act has proven to be a powerful tool for shedding light on discrimination in the death penalty,” said Stubbs. “For over 100 years, jury selection in capital cases has been plagued by racial discrimination against qualified African-American citizens. Today’s decision offers promise that change in this area, long overdue, is finally coming.”

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