Arguments about a death row inmate’s complaint that racial bias played a role in his case are set to begin today in a Cumberland County courtroom, an event that legal scholars across the country are watching.
Marcus Reymond Robinson, a death row inmate for 17 years and five months, is seeking relief from his sentence under the Racial Justice Act, a state law adopted in 2009 that lets judges consider statistics when reviewing racial bias claims.
The hearing in his case, the first of 155 similar complaints filed under the controversial law, could set the tone and parameters for those that follow.
Robinson, 38, was convicted in August 1994 of kidnapping 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, stealing his car and $27, and shooting him to death with a shotgun.
An accomplice, Roderick Williams, 37, was convicted of the 1991 crime in February 1995 and sentenced to life in prison. Robinson and Williams are black. Tornblom was white.
Robinson claims racial bias played a role in selection of his jury and his death sentence and his attorneys plan to present statistics to bolster their case in the first part of a three-pronged motion for appropriate relief.
If Robinson can prove there was racism in his prosecution or in the county, regional or state judicial systems as a whole, the law specifies that his death sentence will be converted to life in prison without parole.
The hearing comes about two months after an attempt by the Republican-led legislature to gut the historic act, which was approved narrowly along party lines when Democrats were in control.
Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, used her veto power to halt the Republican effort, saying the law, hailed by some as a progressive attempt to address claims of lingering racism in the courts, should be given a chance.
Federal law affords death row inmates an opportunity to challenge their convictions and sentences on grounds of racial bias, but the way that law has been written and interpreted judges could not consider statistics as evidence. Without verbal or written acknowledgements from prosecutors, jurors or others that race, indeed, was a factor, racial bias was difficult to demonstrate.
Then in 2009, after several high-profile exonerations of the wrongfully convicted, state legislators used a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the federal law to adopt a state law.
Under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act, one of only two such laws in the country, judges can consider statistical evidence to determine whether racial bias played a significant role in an inmate’s death sentence in the county, prosecutorial district, judicial district or the state where the case was heard.
Prosecutors mounted a two-pronged campaign against the law late last year as it became clear the Robinson case would be heard in Cumberland County court.
Susan Doyle, the Johnston County district attorney who leads the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys, a statewide organization that lobbies the legislature, argued that prosecutors should not be judged on the basis of what another prosecutor in another county might have done.
In the Cumberland County case, Robinson argues that prosecutors struck blacks from the jury pool at a much higher rate than whites.
Robinson’s jury had nine white jurors, one American Indian and two blacks, according to court filings.
In Robinson’s trial, according to his Racial Justice Act claim, prosecutors struck half the blacks eligible for the jury and only 15 percent of those who were not black.
The evidence in the hearing, expected to last two weeks, will probably center on experts discussing a sweeping study of capital cases in North Carolina done by Michigan State University law school researchers. That study found that qualified black jurors – those not released for cause, such as their opposition to the death penalty – were struck by prosecutors at nearly two times the rate as qualified white jurors. In Cumberland County, they were struck at 2.6 times the rate, according to the researchers.
Prosecutors argue that race is not among their considerations when weighing whether to strike a potential juror. Cumberland County prosecutors Cal Colyer and Rob Thompson, who declined to discuss the Robinson claim outside the courtroom, have sought information from prosecutors and court documents across the state on why black potential jurors were dismissed from death penalty cases. They have indicated plans to call prosecutors and judges in an effort to show a different interpretation of the Michigan State University study findings.
But a ruling by Greg Weeks, the Cumberland County senior resident superior court judge presiding over the hearing, is not expected to be the end of the case. Either side is likely to challenge his ruling in the state Supreme Court, which could stall hearings in all other Racial Justice Act claims until an appeal is decided.
Even then, Robinson’s case might not be over. He also has claimed that racial bias was a factor in the prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty against accused murderers, and that the victims’ race was a factor in whether juries issued death sentences.
Executions have been on hold in North Carolina since 2006 because of unrelated legal challenges.