Death Penalty Case Puts Racism on Trial in North Carolina

Kate Dailey, BBC News, February 7, 2012

In 1991, 18-year-old Marcus Reymond Robinson and a friend convinced Erik Tornblom, 17, to give them a ride home from a gas station.

Robinson and his friend then pulled a gun on Tornblom, forced him to drive to a field, took his car and his money and shot him in the head.

A jury later convicted Robinson, who is black, of pulling the trigger on Tornblom, who was white. The prosecution presented evidence that Robinson said he wanted to kill a “whitey”.

He was sentenced to death and scheduled to be executed in 2007. But like many death row convicts, he has survived past that date, and continues to appeal his sentence.

Last week, he appeared in a North Carolina courtroom as the first death row inmate to present evidence under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA), a controversial law designed to compensate for bias in the judicial system.

He and his legal team are hoping the new law will offer him relief in the form of life in prison without parole.

In the process, they’re putting racism itself on trial.

‘Wild disparities’

Critics of the death penalty have long argued that it is applied in an uneven and unjust fashion.

“Currently, only about 1% of the people who are accused of intentional murder are receiving the death penalty. There are wild disparities,” says Malcolm Hunter, one of Robinson’s lawyers and executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

“I could show you the summaries of 50 cases any year in North Carolina and say ‘I want to pick out the two or three that get the death penalty’, and you’d never be able to do it.”

series of studies over the past 30 years show that race is often a significant factor in who gets the death penalty: that black convicts are more likely to receive the death penalty than white ones, that white victims are more likely to result in a death sentence than black ones.

For Shirley Burns, the mother of Robinson, the idea of sentencing bias isn’t just an academic exercise. Her other son, Curtis, was killed in 2006.

His killer wasn’t eligible for the death penalty but could have served life in prison. Thanks to a plea bargain, he is currently serving a 22-year sentence.

“Punishment for a crime is not wrong, but the way that it is dealt to different people is wrong,” says Ms Burns.

Though it is currently unconstitutional to seek the death penalty for racially biased reasons, defendants must prove intentional bigotry to make their case.

That’s a difficult order, says Frank Baumgartner, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.

“You would have to get someone to say I did this on purpose, and I did this for the reason of racial bigotry,” he says. “It’s almost never done.”

But by looking at several cases over time, broader patterns of systemic bias emerge.

In the 1987 Supreme Court case McClesky v Kemp, justices weighed whether these statistical patterns could be used to prove bias in a death penalty appeal.

In a 5-4 decision, the justices decided against the use of this data, noting that the matter was one “best presented to the legislative bodies“ who could choose to pass specific laws addressing this concern.

In 2009, the legislature in North Carolina did just that.

Data defence

The Racial Justice Act (RJA) allows death penalty prisoners to use statistical patterns of injustice, not just the facts of an individual case, to prove bias.

similar but weaker law exists in Kentucky, and has yet to be put to use.

Under North Carolina’s RJA, Defendants are eligible for a life sentence without parole if they can show that they were more likely to receive the death penalty because of their race or the race of their victims.

They can also, as in the case of Marcus Robinson, try to prove racial bias in how the state used their “peremptory challenges” during jury selection.

These challenges allow lawyers for both the prosecution and the defence to strike a certain amount of potential jurors without cause, as long as in doing so they adhere to federal laws against discrimination.

Barbara O’Brien, a law professor from Michigan State University, studied the role of race in peremptory jury strikes in North Carolina from 1990 to 2010.

At Robinson’s RJA hearing, she testified that, on average, North Carolina prosecutors in death penalty cases excluded qualified black jurors at more than twice the rate of qualified non-black jurors.

For Marcus Robinson’s jury pool, qualified blacks were rejected 3.5 times more.

“Being black does predict whether or not the state will strike the potential juror, even when controlling for these other variables,” she said.

The final jury seated in Robinson’s case had nine white members, two black, and one Native American. The rate of black members on the jury, 18%, was not much different to that of North Carolina’s black population,about 21%.

But under the RJA, the final makeup of the jury is not at issue. Instead, it’s what role the state played to get to that point.

“Absent of other things, naturally the prosecution will want less blacks, defence will want more. The question is whether we should allow the prosecution to bleach juries,” says Mr Baumgartner.

“Should the state, on our behalf, engage in a racially discriminatory pattern of behaviour?”

Colour blind justice?

For the family of Erik Tornblom questions about systemic bias and judicial fairness seem far removed from the death of their son. He is not a statistic, they say, and neither is his killer.

“What do people in Michigan have to do with us in North Carolina?” Patricia Tornblom, Erik’s stepmother, asked after the first day in court. The family wore buttons that read “Justice is color blind”.

To them, the only racial bias that matters should be the one that Robinson displayed when seeking out a white victim.

The prosecution cannot make this argument. They cannot provide details of the murder and argue that the death penalty was well deserved. They can only present their own statistics expert, as well as evidence from the judge and prosecutor in Robinson’s original trial.

Both men maintain that race was not a factor in the state’s jury selection process. More judges are expected to testify to similar effect.

But the Racial Justice Act fundamentally redefines the way the judicial system views racism. For years, the courts only saw racism as a deliberate act, done with malice.

The RJA says that racism has more to do with subtle shifts and built-in prejudices that permeate what should be a fair process.

“People can be motivated by race without even realising it,” said defence attorney James Ferguson in his opening arguments. Later, he presented expert witnesses testifying to that same claim.

The hearing is expected to wrap up within the week, after which Judge Greg Weeks will make a ruling.

His decision as to whether or not Robinson qualifies for a new sentence will help shape the way that the law is interpreted in the future, and will reveal how far-reaching the consequences of the RJA could be for death row inmates, state prosecutors and the people of North Carolina.

Either way, his decision is expected to face appeals, and to serve as a historic moment in the ongoing debate over how American courts deal with race, justice and death.

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  • One reason why blacks get the death penalty often  when they murder whites, is that these murders are often horrific crimes, involving sadistic torture and savage violence to a helpless or cooperating  white victim.

     Also. many of these interracial murders are brutal sexual homicides of elderly women, an especially heinous crime, that is almost non existent in the white on black metric.

    besides, black on white  murders and sexual homicides outnumber its interracial reverse by a ratio of over 9 to one, so it is natural that more black killers of whites would get the death penalty than the reverse.

    The way things are going, affirmative action in criminal law will become just as  ubiquitous as it is already in constitutional law. How long before blacks murdering whites will automatically be considered “justifiable homicides” to satisfy a guilt tripping “liberal” dogma?

    • One reason why blacks get the death penalty often  when they murder
      whites, is that these murders are often horrific crimes, involving
      sadistic torture and savage violence to a helpless or cooperating  white

      On the flip side of the coin, the reason so many black murderers of black victims don’t get the death penalty is that those murders weren’t “horrific” or “sadistic” or “torturous” or “savage” (as if a murder isn’t any of those things), it was the result of pure impulse and passion, which legally is only 2nd Degree Murder, not even qualifying for a life w/o parole sentence much less the death penalty.

    • Right to up the very moment it becomes them and theirs who are the Victims.

    • Furthermore, how many whites who have killed blacks were in a legal grey area between justified and unjustified homicide? The Goetz and Ersland cases come to mind.

  • Anonymous

    Another tragic tale of the government spending taxpayer’s money like water to keep an evil convicted murderer alive.

  • Oil Can Harry

    Let’s see: a black man slaughters a 17 year old white because of his skin color. However, we can’t execute him because that would be discrimination against blacks.

    Makes perfect sense to Democrats! 

  • All of this is nonsense.

    If it’s okay to put to Death, a White Man for Crimes, let it be said same for non-whites.

    Notice how now, Facts don’t matter none for ’tis po’ black man here and you just know, he’s being “oppressed” or “racist’d against” as another poster once put it or, he had a ‘hard life’ or, and on and on it goes.  It appears the excuse for non-whites in unending.  If only White Men had it this easy…

  • Anonymous

    Disgusting. A black kills a white for the color of  his skin and we are worried about supposed racism against blacks?  There is no such thing as racism against blacks.

  • This is just another form of an appeal. Apparently the “appeals” process wasn’t letting enough blacks off from their well deserved punishment so they had to come up with something new.

  • Anonymous

    ” Between 1975-2005, blacks committed 53% of all felony murders and 56% manslaughters. Black averaged 12% of the US population during this time period. Source: US DOJ, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
    If the application of the death penalty was evenly distributed by race, then 53% of the people on death row would by black and 53% of the people executed would be black.

    Here is a link to the most recent statistics of the application of the death penalty from the US DOJ, Bureau of Justice Statistics. The DOJ breaks it down into three racial categories. Black, Whites & Hispanics, and Asians & American Indians.

    Only 41.5% of the inmates on death row are black. This means black murderers are substantially less likely to get the death penalty for murder.

    Of the whopping 46 death row inmates executed in 2010 (out of 3,173), only 13 were black. This means only 28% of the death row inmates executed were black.

    Fact: Blacks convicted of murder are significantly less likely to be sentenced to death than white murderers. Black inmates on death row are significantly less likely to actually be put to death than white inmates on death row.
    The one people discrimination against by the judicial system is white people.”

  • There’s actually a case going on right now in Vegas like that. It wasn’t “the N-word” but a white guy called him black or something. My memory of the case is a bit shady.
    Ive always wondered how many cases involving black perps/white victims end up with a lesser charge/sentence because they used that as an excuse. I know all to well how much they use it. Growing up around blacks, anytime I would have the slightest confrontation with them in school or whatever, they would always say I called them nigger…and it ALWAYS worked.

  • Anonymous

    This is  all common sense.

    IF, you lived in the twilight zone, smoked crack,  had major brain damage,  and were s*** simple. In other words, an average day in detroit.

    But apparently, even in a place like North Carolina, they are illogical and insane.  For that is what that law is, illogical and insane.  It makes no sense. It is clearly anti-white and meant to keep black criminals from being punished properly for their crimes. So much for justice being blind.  That is modern justice in BRA. Even in the south.

    • Anonymous

      Unfortunately, North Carolina is becoming more liberal…blacks moving back, the college/university crowd, hispanics.  The good news for the short-term is that Gov. Perdue won’t seek reelection.

  • Anonymous

    While this was a tragedy, it is nowhere near as horrific as the millions of Blacks who were killed  by Whites throughout history. In fact, just last summer in Mississippi, a group of White teens violently murdered a Black man out of pure racial hatred. 

    • Yep, finally a case of a white murdering a black out of racial animus for the Corrupt Liberal Media to gloat about.

       Now compare that to hundreds and hundreds of  documented cases of black on white racist murders  where the CLM ignores the obvious racial hate.

         The National Civil Rights Memorial lists a total of 40 people, black and white, who were murdered by the Klan and its sympathizers in the Civil Rights Era, from 1954 to 1968.

       Since then there are documented cases of at least 300 whites being murdered by openly racist blacks such as in the Zebra Murders, De Mau Mau, The Fountain Vally Massacre, the Long Island Railroad Massacre, The New Orleans Sniper, Miami Cult Murders,  Eugene Watts,etc etc.

      It is the Greatest Story Never Told

    • Bon of Babble, Harumpthy Dumpty, Jack from Chicago and yours truly are starting a band and calling it “Unearned White Privilege.”  You wanna join?  We could always use a good kazoo player.

  • Anonymous

    The moral of the story is that blacks are naturally treacherous – this is perhaps their very worst of their characteristics.There is always a risk when interacting with blacks.

  • Bon, From the Land of Babble


    I don’t understand what your purpose is in coming here.  To tell us “racist” Whites how “racist” we are?  To take us down a peg or two?  To “feel” superior to us?  What is your point exactly?

    We certainly don’t need your help, the government is doing a very good job of destroying us Whites by legislating specifically against us in your favor, extracting the product of our labors to hand over to your people, asking nothing in return and keeping its boot on our White necks.  The government allows you to receive preferences, promotions, perks, unearned scholarships and college slots that you do not deserve at our expense.  You are allowed to attack us with near impunity as the Western media give your people pass after pass after pass and ignore your murderous, vile acts against Whites in the US, England and especially SA.

    You see, we Whites are in a Marxist war that is being directed against us by a hostile elite that controls the government, media and school.  Their goal is White annihilation, White genocide of Native Born Whites in the US, SA, Australia and New Zealand.  No White is safe anywhere.  Our homelands, including land we have occupied for 20,000 years is being wrested from us and handed over to you and others like you.  

    You have a very important roll is in our destruction, which you are playing beautifully right here as a tool of the hostile elite:  You and all blacks, hispanics too, play the roll of useful idiots and running dogs for the elite.  You are being USED as a battering ram to destroy us, nothing more.  

    To the hostile elite that run this country, you are beneath contempt and less than expendable, useful only for the roll you play in this genocidal war that is directed at us.  You are even being funded to do this — your organizations, politicians, EBT cards. 

    When you have finished your roll, and we are an even smaller, more terrorized minority without a homeland or make up 0 percent of the population, you will be quickly eliminated as well.

    Your new masters have NO intention of funding a parasitic, whining, criminal class.

    What you fail to understand is that we Whites were the best friends you blacks have ever had.  We ended slavery.  Our Western governments deemed you “equal” to us in all way.  We have thrown trillions of dollars at you that have been confiscated by force from us through excessive taxation.  WE have tried to help you academically through billion dollar programs (all of which have failed).  

    You have no idea what is coming.


  • Racial Justice Act: He gets lynched high in town square by White people because he killed White people.

    This nation needs hanging justice for these criminals.

  • I think that if a multiracial society is to function, all cross-racial crime would need to be punished with an increased severity, including rapid executions. This is not at all how things have developed.

  • Anonymous

    A number of years ago, here in Michigan, there was the case of “poor little” Nathaniel Abraham.  Nathaniel Abraham was involved with the law from a relatively early age.
    Despite “intervention” by well-meaning social workers, he was incorrigable as they come. 
    He was finally “locked up” when he shot and killed a man outside a party store. 
    The bleeding-heart judge sentenced him to juvenile, giving him a “blended sentence”.  Despite considerable trouble in the juvenile system, he was released. 
    He appeared at his “hearing” in attire like a pimp. 
    Behind the scenes, the wheels of the state government were turning to give “poor little” Nathaniel a “full ride” free college education.  The public outcry forced the state to “back off” on their “help” for “poor little” Nathaniel. 
    Despite the considerable “help” from Michigan taxpayers, the “rehabilitation of “poor little” Nathaniel was unsuccessful. 
     “Poor little” Nathaniel Abraham is in adult for robbing a pizza delivery driver. . .
    Oh, by the way, “poor little” Nathaniel Abraham is black.
    Enough said . . .

  • Anonymous

    Feeling sorry for black people is an inate trait of white people woven into every fibre of their being. No matter how racist (ie. knowledgeable) a white person is, or how deserving a black person is of their fate, white people will always feel sorry for black people and want to help them. That’s why we need segregation, to overcome white people’s flawed instincts, which none of us are imune to.