FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — In a landmark ruling, a North Carolina judge Friday vacated the death penalty of a convicted black murderer, saying prosecutors across the state had engaged for years in a deliberate and systematic pattern of racial discrimination while striking black potential jurors in death penalty cases.
The decision by Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks in Cumberland County, N.C., could help set a precedent nationwide in death penalty cases, which for years have included arguments by black defendants and civil rights lawyers that prosecutors keep blacks off juries for overtly 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 preemptory strikes in capital cases.’’ He ruled that discrimination was a factor not only in the case Weeks heard involving convicted murderer Marcus Reymond Robinson, but also in capital cases involving black defendants across North Carolina.
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 in cases where defendants prove racial bias in jury selection. Prosecutors fought the law, calling it a back-door attempt to overturn the death penalty.
Weeks, who is black, said “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise preemptory 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.’’
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.’’
Robinson, sentenced to death for killing a white teenager in 1991, was re-sentenced by Weeks to life in prison without parole. Robinson, 38, is among 150 death row inmates, both white and black, who have filed appeals in North Carolina under the act. Defense attorneys said three of those cases are in the courts and may 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.
“This is historic,’’ said James E. Ferguson, who represented Robinson. “It marks a turning point in jury selection as far as race is concerned in North Carolina. We hope this signals a real change.’’
Stephen Dear, executive director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, called the decision a victory for justice.
“Jim Crow never died,’’ Dear said. “He just put on a suit and a robe and prosecuted and tried death penalty cases for decades. That changed today.’’
Prosecutors in the case did not comment before leaving the courtroom shortly after Weeks’ ruling.
North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act is the only law of its kind in the country. Similar laws are pending in two other states, said Cassandra Stubbs, one of Robinson’s lawyers. Kentucky has a racial justice act, but it is not retroactive.
Prosecutors have 60 days to appeal Weeks’ ruling. Republicans, who control the state Legislature, have attempted to repeal the Racial Justice Act but have been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Stubbs said that Robinson’s life sentence would stand even if the act were overturned.
Robinson, wearing a tan sports shirt and khakis, sat quietly and looked down at the defense table as the ruling was announced. He declined the judge’s offer 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, whom Robinson was convicted of killing. Tornblom died from a shotgun blast to the face during a robbery that netted $27.
Tornblom’s stepmother, Patricia Tornblom, and his father, Richard Tornblom, have bitterly opposed the act and told The Times earlier this year that Robinson should be executed. They sat in silence Friday as Weeks read his ruling.