Court hears of Cumberland prosecutor's tendency to exclude black jurors
A researcher testified Tuesday that a Cumberland County prosecutor in Marcus Reymond Robinson's 1994 murder trial was three times more likely to dismiss blacks during jury selection for capital cases than other races.
The testimony comes on the second day of the state's first hearing under the Racial Justice Act, which gives death row inmates a chance to argue that racism played a role in their prosecution.
The prosecutor in Robinson's trial was John Dickson, who is now a Cumberland County District Court judge. Last year, Dickson was subpoenaed to testify at this hearing.
Robinson, who is black, was convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991. His lawyers hope to use statistics to persuade Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks to convert Robinson's death sentence to life in prison without parole, as specified in the Racial Justice Act of 2009.
Researcher Barbara O'Brien of Michigan State University said she looked at three trials that Dickson took part in that resulted in death sentences. In those three trials, Dickson was 3.3 times more likely to strike a potential black juror than other jurors, O'Brien said.
On Monday, she testified that Dickson peremptorily struck half of the eligible black jurors during Robinson's trial, but only 14.3 % of the nonblack jurors. Lawyers are allowed to remove a certain number of potential jurors at their discretion, but race is not supposed to be a factor.
O'Brien found other patterns in Dickson's selection of jurors. He was 19.5 times more likely to peremptorily dismiss jurors who expressed reservations about the death penalty, and he was 8.3 times more likely to dismiss jurors who had jobs that involved helping people.
Conversely, Dickson was less likely to dismiss jurors who had professional careers, O'Brien said.
Robinson's lawyers are trying to show that black jurors were illegally excluded based on race from serving on North Carolina death cases, and in Robinson's case in particular. Racism in jury selection is a factor that can lead to that conclusion, under the terms of the Racial Justice Act. Prosecutor Jonathan Perry, who is from Union County, began cross examining O'Brien on Tuesday morning, questioning her on her methodology.
Robinson and another man were convicted of killing 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, a Douglas Byrd High School student, after the teen gave them a ride from a gas station. The other man is serving a life sentence.
O'Brien said she hired lawyers to read trial transcripts and other court documents to ascertain information about potential jurors, such as their race, age and gender.
She had previously testified that when the court record was ambiguous or lacked these details, the researchers used voter registration records and a commercial database that tracks people's names, addresses and demographic details to get this information.
The team evaluated information about each potential juror for factors that might affect whether he or she would be seated, such as attitudes toward law enforcement, acquaintance with lawyers or witnesses in the case, past experiences as a victim of crime and whether the juror had been accused of a crime.
Perry showed O'Brien an example where her team had made an error in how they classified a juror's information, and she acknowledged the mistake.
"We did the best we could to be as accurate as possible," she said.
2 lawyers independently evaluated each juror, she said, and she followed up where there were discrepancies in their results or where they had questions on how to classify a juror's background, demeanor and other factors.
(source: The Fayetteville Observer)