one in the nation, lets prisoners use statistical patterns to try to prove
death sentences or jury selections were racially biased.
For nearly 3 weeks, convicted murderer Marcus Reymond Robinson has listened
quietly inside a county courtroom here to intricate testimony about statistics
— dry statistics that could get him off death row.
Robinson, a black man convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991, is the
first inmate to test North Carolina's Racial Justice Act, the nation's only law
that allows death row prisoners to reduce their sentences to life without
parole by proving racial bias in jury selection or sentencing.
The act, passed in 2009, has drawn bitter condemnation from prosecutors and
Republican state legislators who call it a backdoor attempt to repeal the death
penalty. It allows inmates to cite statistical patterns in statewide jury
selection — rather than focusing solely on their own cases — to argue that
their jury selection or sentencing was racially biased.
"It's new territory," Richard Dieter, director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty
Information Center, said of the case's legal and political implications.
Robinson's case is being closely followed by legal scholars, lawyers and
politicians. If he's successful, it could prompt calls for similar laws in at
least 20 other states that have conducted studies on race, jury selection and
the death penalty.
White, as well as black, defendants could argue that eliminating black jurors
denied them jurors more likely to oppose the death penalty and to view police
with suspicion, Dieter said.
More than 150 inmates on North Carolina's death row, many of whom are white,
have petitioned for hearings under the law.
The issue of race has dominated Robinson's hearing before a Superior Court
judge here. Prosecutors have pointed out that Robinson said "he was going to
get him a whitey" before he killed 17-year-old Erik Tornblom with a shotgun
blast to the face and robbed him of $27. An accomplice is serving a life
In closing arguments this month, prosecutor Cal Colyer called the Racial
Justice Act "an insult to the prosecutors, to the judges and, yes, even to the
defense attorneys in this case." Another prosecutor, Rob Thompson, said the
only person discriminated against because of race was Tornblom.
Robinson's lawyer, James Ferguson, told the court that the Racial Justice Act
could "eliminate the harm that's done to the system itself by limiting and
excluding folks from serving on a jury as a result of race."
Robinson's case, and possibly those to follow, hinges on a voluminous study of
peremptory challenges by prosecutors in 173 death penalty cases in North
Carolina between 1990 and 2010.
The study, by Michigan State University researchers, found that prosecutors
struck potential black jurors at twice the rate of nonblack jury candidates. In
Cumberland County, where Robinson was tried, the strike rate for blacks was 2.6
times the rate for whites.
At Robinson's 1994 trial, blacks were struck at 3.5 times the rate of potential
white jurors. His jury had 9 whites, 1 Native American and 2 blacks.
Of more than 150 people on death row at the time of the Michigan State study,
31 had all-white juries and 38 had juries with only 1 black member. In cases
with at least 1 black potential juror, prosecutors dismissed 56% of blacks
compared with 25% of potential jurors of other races, the study found.
The use of statistics from unrelated trials, permitted under the act, has
enraged opponents of the law, among them Tornblom's parents. The couple has
attended the trial, quietly fuming as they listened to testimony.
"This whole study is a sham," Tornblom's stepmother, Patricia Tornblom, said in
a courtroom interview during a break in testimony. "What does all this stuff
from other cases have to do with this case?"
Her stepson, not Robinson, was the victim of racism, she said, nodding toward
the defendant. Robinson, 38, a broad-faced man with short dreadlocks, sat at
the defense table nearby, dressed in a sport shirt and khaki pants.
"He chose a white boy to kill — and he killed him," Tornblom said.
Prosecutors in the case challenged the Michigan State study, saying it looked
at only 173 trials over a 20-year period, when 696 capital murder trials were
held in the state. They also pointed out that jurors can be struck for many
reasons other than race. The study failed to take all factors into account,
Prosecutor Jonathan Perry said the defense used its broad statistical analysis
"to try to get people to lose sight of the trees and focus on the forest."
The issues of race and the death penalty are playing out far beyond the
Fayetteville courtroom. State Republicans passed a bill to overturn the act,
but it was vetoed in December by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
"It is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the
imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina," Perdue said.
A similar act was passed by the U.S. House in 1990 and 1994 but failed in the
Senate. A favorable ruling in Robinson's case could revive national support for
such a law.
A ruling on Robinson's petition is expected in the next few weeks.
The law's proponents maintain that it provides important constitutional
safeguards and is a landmark in civil rights protections. The state
Legislature, then controlled by Democrats, introduced the act in 2009 after a
series of high-profile exonerations by DNA evidence of wrongly convicted death
For Robinson, the act offers a path off death row. "It's been a long time
coming," his lawyer, Ferguson, who is black, told the court. "But finally,
change is coming."
The law's opponents say it opens up a legal quagmire.
Mandating a sentence of life without parole could be ruled unconstitutional
because that sentence didn't exist in North Carolina before 1994, says the
state's Conference of District Attorneys. Inmates convicted before 1994 could
argue that it's unconstitutional to sentence them to a punishment that did not
exist when they were convicted. Two-thirds of the death row inmates who have
filed under the act were convicted before 1994.
"Those who say, 'Oh, that could never happen,' aren't the ones who will make
the decisions," Peg Dorer, director of the district attorneys group, said in an
interview. "It's up to the courts."
Prosecutors contend that some death row inmates ultimately could be set free.
The victim's father, Richard Tornblom, shares that concern. The pardons
recently granted to Mississippi inmates, some of them convicted murderers, by
outgoing Republican Gov. Haley Barbour prove that there are no guarantees that
Robinson would spend the rest of his life in prison, he said.
"That shows you that there's really no such thing as life without parole,"
The victim's stepmother said she feared the act would allow Robinson to escape
the justice mandated by a jury 18 years ago.
"For him, there should be no decision here other than death. He should die,"
(source: Los Angeles Times)