FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — In a landmark ruling, a North Carolina judge on Friday vacated the death penalty of a black man convicted of murder, saying prosecutors across the state had engaged in deliberate and systematic racial discrimination when striking black potential jurors in death penalty cases.
The ruling was the first under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, which allows judges to reduce death sentences to life in prison without parole when defendants can prove racial bias in jury selection. Prosecutors had fought the act, the nation’s only such law, calling it a back-door attempt to overturn the death penalty.
The decision by Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks in Cumberland County, N.C., could have an effect on death penalty cases nationwide; for years, such cases have included arguments by black defendants and civil rights lawyers that prosecutors keep blacks off juries for racial reasons.
In a 167-page order harshly critical of prosecutors, Weeks said they “intentionally used the race of [jury pool] members as a significant factor in decisions to exercise peremptory strikes in capital cases.” He ruled that discrimination was a factor not only in the case he heard, involving convicted murderer Marcus Reymond Robinson, but also in other capital cases involving black defendants across North Carolina.
Weeks, who is black, said “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” statewide during the time Robinson was on trial. That was enough, he said, “to support an inference of intentional discrimination.”
Richard Dieter, director of the nonpartisan Death Penalty Information Center, called the ruling historic. “It could reverberate around the country,” he said, noting that studies in at least 25 states with death penalties have found evidence of racial bias in jury selection or sentencing.
Weeks said discrimination by prosecutors had undermined public confidence in the state’s court system and infringed on the rights of defendants of all races. He said he hoped the Racial Justice Act would be a first step to “eliminate discrimination in our system of justice.”
The act allows inmates to cite statistical patterns in jury selection statewide to argue that racial bias was used in selecting their juries. Robinson’s lawyers relied heavily on a Michigan State University statistical analysis of jury selection procedures in cases across the state during the time of Robinson’s trial. The study found that prosecutors struck blacks from jury pools at more than twice the rate of whites.
Robinson, sentenced to death in 1994 for killing a white teenager in 1991, was resentenced by Weeks to life in prison without parole. Robinson, 38, is among 150 death row inmates, both white and black, who have filed appeals under the act. Defense attorneys said three of those cases are in the courts and could be heard soon.
The decision was greeted by Robinson’s lawyers and civil rights advocates as a groundbreaking affirmation of ingrained racial discrimination by prosecutors in a Southern state.
“It marks a turning point in jury selection as far as race is concerned in North Carolina. We hope this signals a real change,” said James E. Ferguson, who represented Robinson.
Cassandra Stubbs, another lawyer who represented Robinson, said the ruling put the state “at a crossroads” in its attempt to remove racism from the courts via the Racial Justice Act. “Do we move forward, or do [prosecutors] continue to fight it?” she said moments after the judge’s ruling.
In a statement, the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys said that prosecutors across the state “strongly dispute that race is a significant factor in death penalty cases.” Claims of racial bias are best determined by a judge at trial, the group said, not by “generalized statistics” presented two decades after a conviction.
Prosecutors had challenged the statistical 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.
Weeks said claims by prosecutors that black jurors were struck for “racially neutral” reasons were “pretextual or substantially invalid.”
“Being black does predict whether the state will strike” a potential juror, Weeks said.
Prosecutors were expected to appeal Weeks’ ruling; they have 60 days to do so.
Republicans who control the state Legislature have attempted to repeal the Racial Justice Act, but the attempts have been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue. Similar racial justice laws are pending in Pennsylvania and Missouri, Stubbs said. Kentucky has a racial justice act, but it is not retroactive.
Stubbs, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said that Robinson’s life sentence would stand even if the act is repealed.
Robinson sat quietly and looked down at the defense table as the ruling was announced. He declined the judge’s offer of a chance to speak.
His mother, Shirley Burns, said, “Justice at last.” Asked whether the ruling might set a precedent, she replied, “There are a lot of victims out there who were not treated fairly.”
Burns said she felt compassion for the parents of 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, the youth Robinson was convicting of killing with a shotgun blast to the face during a robbery that netted $27. “They lost a son. I lost a son,” Burns said.
Tornblom’s father, Richard Tornblom, and stepmother, Patricia Tornblom, have bitterly opposed the act, and told The Times earlier this year that Robinson should be executed.
On Friday, as the judge read his ruling, the Tornbloms sat in the jury box in dejected silence.