Death Sentence Overturned Due to Racial Bias

by Billy Corriher

Last week, Marcus Robinson was on death row. Now, he has been given a chance at life. His death sentence was overturned because the judge found that black jurors were systematically excluded in his trial. Judge Gregory Weeks issued an order overturning the sentence under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which gives death row inmates the right to challenge racial discrimination.  Republicans in the state legislature recently tried to repeal the law, only to face a veto from the governor. When it was passed, prosecutors assailed the law as a back door repeal of the death penalty.  After reading Judge Weeks’ order, I think they may be right.

Robinson presented statistical and anecdotal evidence of discrimination in jury selection statewide, in the court in which he was tried, and in his trial. Unlike federal constitutional challenges to jury selection, the Act does not require defendants to prove a prosecutor’s discriminatory motive. The court gave great weight to a study of prosecutors’ peremptory challenges which concluded that potential black jurors were twice as likely be excluded as non-black potential jurors. This conclusion was true across North Carolina.  The state did not do much to counter the results.

The prosecutor in Robinson’s case admitted that everyone is influenced by unconscious biases, but he denied discriminating in this case. Judge Weeks noted that, because bias can be unconscious, he could not give credence to the prosector’s denial.

The study covered capital convictions in trials from 1990 to 2010, when the study began. All but one of North Carolina’s death row inmates were tried in this time period. Armed with the results of this study, these inmates will likely follow Robinson’s lead. Does that mean that all death sentences in the state will be overturned?

If it does, it will be the fault of prosecutors for failing to adequately implement defendants’ constitutional right to a fair jury selection. Judge Weeks said that North Carolina, unlike other states, had not trained its prosecutors to avoid racial bias. Instead, prosectors’ training focused on how to offer non-racial explanations for their peremptory challenges.

If the Racial Justice Act is effectively a repeal of the death penalty, the citizens of North Carolina should applaud. These cases will ensure that courts can act to rectify unconscious or unspoken racial prejudice in the criminal justice system. Other states should follow North Carolina’s lead.

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