A North Carolina judge ruled Friday that racial discrimination played a role in sending a black man to death row for killing a white teenager in 1991, a groundbreaking decision rendered under the state’s Racial Justice Act.
Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks said condemned inmate Marcus Robinson should be spared execution and instead serve a life sentence in prison without possibility of parole.
Weeks found that prosecutors deliberately excluded qualified black jurors from jury service in Robinson’s case, and said there was evidence this was happening in courts throughout the state.
Robinson’s case was the first to be heard under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that allows prisoners facing execution and capital murder defendants to present evidence of racial bias, including statistics, in court.
Weeks’ ruling is expected to be the first of many involving condemned North Carolina inmates. Those who win their claims can have their sentences converted to life in prison without parole. The Racial Justice Act cannot be used to set anyone free.
North Carolina has 157 death-row inmates, more than half of whom are black. All but a few have filed to challenge their sentences under the Racial Justice Act. Robinson’s case was the first to get a hearing before a judge.
Reading a summary of his ruling from the bench, Weeks said that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” at the time of Robinson’s trial. The judge added that the disparity was strong enough “as to support an inference of intentional discrimination.”
Prosecutors said Friday they planned to appeal Weeks’ decision.
Robinson, 38, was sentenced to death for murdering 17-year-old Erik Torbblom in 1991 during a robbery. The jury that sent him to death row him had nine whites, two blacks and one American Indian.
It was later shown that prosecutors removed 50 percent of all qualified black jurors from serving on his jury, but removed only 14.8 percent of all other jurors.
A Michigan State University study of jury selection practices in North Carolina capital cases between 1990 and 2010 was introduced as evidence. The study concluded that prosecutors peremptorily struck black potential jurors at more than twice the rate they struck non-black jurors.
According to the center, 31 inmates on North Carolina’s death row were sentenced to death by all-white juries, and an additional 38 had juries with only one person of color.