Judge: Race played role in racial justice case

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 20, 2012

FAYETTEVILLE (AP) — A condemned killer’s trial was so tainted by the racially colored decisions of prosecutors that he should be removed from death row and serve a life sentence, a judge ruled Friday in a precedent-setting North Carolina decision.
Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks’ decision in the case of Marcus Robinson comes in the first test of a 2009 state law that allows death row prisoners and capital murder defendants to challenge their sentences or prosecutors’ decisions with statistics and other evidence.
Only Kentucky has a law like North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which says the prisoner’s sentence is reduced to life in prison without parole if the claim is successful.
“The Racial Justice Act represents a landmark reform in capital sentencing in our state,” Weeks said in Fayetteville on Friday. “There are those who disagree with this, but it is the law.”
Robinson’s case is the first of more than 150 pending cases to get an evidentiary hearing before a judge. Prosecutors said Friday they planned to challenge Weeks’ decision, and District Attorney Billy West declined further comment while the case was being appealed.
Weeks ruled that race was a factor in prosecution decisions to reject potential black jurors before the murder trial of a black man who was convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991. The jury that convicted Robinson had nine whites, two blacks and one American Indian.
Robinson and co-defendant Roderick Williams Jr. murdered 17-year-old Erik Tornblom after the teen gave his killers a ride from a Fayetteville convenience store. Tornblom was forced to drive to a field where he was shot with a sawed-off shotgun.
Robinson came close to death in January 2007, but a judge blocked his scheduled execution. Williams is serving a life sentence.
Central to Robinson’s case before Weeks was a study by two law Michigan State University professors who reported that, of almost 160 people on North Carolina’s death row, 31 had all-white juries, and 38 had only one person of color.
Study co-author and Michigan State professor Barbara O’Brien told a North Carolina legislative panel last month the review of more than 7,400 potential capital jurors couldn’t find anything other than race to explain why potential black jurors were rejected by prosecutors more than twice as often as whites.
Robinson defense attorney James Ferguson of Charlotte told Weeks, who decided the case without a jury, that the study showed race was a significant factor in almost every one of North Carolina’s prosecutorial districts as prosecutors decided to challenge and eliminate black jurors.
“This case is important because it provides an opportunity for all of us to recognize that race far too often has been a significant factor in jury selection in capital cases,” Ferguson said when the hearing opened in January.
Union County prosecutor Jonathan Perry, who helped the Cumberland County District Attorney’s Office argue the case against Robinson, said the study was untrustworthy because it was based on a too-limited sample of death penalty cases to provide meaningful results. The study also failed to detect numerous nonracial reasons that a person might be peremptorily struck from a jury, Perry said.
The Republican-led Legislature tried to repeal the Racial Justice Act earlier this year but failed to override a veto by Gov. Beverly Perdue, a Democrat.