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Judge Commutes Death Sentence: Cites Racial Bias in Landmark Decision

Ruling Under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act Says No One Should Be Sent to Death Because of Racial Bias

Common Dreams staff

Sept. 21, 2011, Protesters chant anti-death penalty slogans at a rally for Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis In Jackson, Ga. Davis was executed last year for the 1991 murder of a police officer. The United States was the only Western democracy that executed prisoners last year, even as an increasing number of U.S. states are moving to abolish the death penalty, Amnesty International announced Monday, March 26, 2012. America's 43 executions in 2011 ranked it fifth in the world in capital punishment, the rights group said in its annual review of worldwide death penalty trends. U.S. executions were down from 46 a year earlier. (AP - Photo AP/Stephen Morton, File)

A North Carolina judge ruled Friday that racial discrimination played a role in sending a black man to death row in 1991, in the first in a series of cases that will challenge death role rulings on grounds of racism.

The landmark decision found 'intentional and systemic discrimination by state prosecutors' against African-American would-be jurors in capital cases. The case found that prosecutors deliberately excluded qualified Black jurors from jury service in death-row inmate Marcus Robinson’s case, in Cumberland County and throughout the state. The ruling takes Robinson off of death row.

The case is the first pursuit under the Racial Justice Act which "allows North Carolina’s 157 death-row prisoners a hearing in which they can present statistics and other evidence that death sentences state- and county-wide were tainted by race discrimination and that their death should be commuted to life in prison," writes the ACLU. The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009.

“Today’s ruling gives a sense of promise that there will be change,” said Cassandra Stubbs, staff attorney for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project. “There is now an opportunity for prosecutors to change their practices so that the process of jury selection in North Carolina will reflect the fundamental American values of justice and fairness that we should all expect.”

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ACLU: North Carolina Judge Finds Racial Discrimination in Death Penalty, Commutes Death Sentence to Life Without Parole

The decision on behalf of Marcus Robinson by North Carolina Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks, the first to be issued under the state’s historic Racial Justice Act, comes nearly 25 years to the day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in McCleskey v. Kemp that evidence of systemic bias is not sufficient to challenge a death sentence.

Passed in 2009, the Racial Justice Act allows North Carolina’s 157 death-row prisoners a hearing in which they can present statistics and other evidence that death sentences state- and county-wide were tainted by race discrimination and that their death should be commuted to life in prison. [...]

As directed by the Racial Justice Act, Weeks ruled that parole eligibility was not an option under the Racial Justice Act and resentenced Robinson to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The heart of the statistical evidence presented in the case came from a large study by researchers from Michigan State University that showed that state prosecutors were significantly more likely to strike African-American potential jurors. In a related study, the researchers found that defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white than if the victim is Black.

Today’s ruling and the findings of the Michigan State study are consistent with the findings of every major study of jury selection in capital cases done in the United States.

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Cassandra Stubbs / ACLU: VICTORY! North Carolina Judge Finds Intentional Racial Discrimination in Death Penalty System

In Robinson's case, powerful statistical evidence of racial bias in jury selection was introduced, including a study from Michigan State University finding that North Carolina prosecutors were twice as likely to remove qualified Black jurors from jury service as other jurors, even after the researchers controlled for alternative explanations such as criminal background or reservations about imposing a death sentence. [...]

Today, the judge applied the plain language of the statute permitting statistical evidence, and weighed all of the evidence — including the unrefuted and powerful statistics. He found pervasive evidence of bias over the last 20 years in North Carolina jury selection, and he ruled for Marcus Robison. It probably didn't hurt that the statistical evidence confirms what all trial lawyers know to be true: race matters in jury selection. For years, it has been an open secret that prosecutors and defense lawyers strike jurors based on racial stereotypes.[...]

The decision is also important for what is says about the future. It provides North Carolina prosecutors — and defense counsel — with an opportunity to take a hard look at the role race has played in jury selection and make the necessary changes to ensure that jury selection is no longer tainted by racial stereotyping.

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