Judge Finds Racial Bias in Death Penalty Sentencing of North Carolina Man

Just days before the 25th anniversary of McCleskey v. Kemp, a North Carolina judge today ruled that racial bias impacted the death penalty conviction of Marcus Robinson and re-sentenced him to to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

This was the first case applying the historic and ground-breaking Racial Justice Act, enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly and Governor Bev Perdue to reject the influence of race discrimination in the administration of the death penalty. The RJA represents a landmark reform in North Carolina, a state which has long been a leader in forward-thinking criminal justice policies.

As reported by The New York Times, Judge Gregory A. Weeks of Cumberland County Superior Court said that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” at the time of the trial of the inmate, Marcus Reymond Robinson. The disparity was strong enough, the judge said, “as to support an inference of intentional discrimination.”

Judge Weeks found that prosecutors deliberately excluded qualified black jurors from jury service in Robinson’s case, in Cumberland County, and throughout the state.

Rob Thompson, one of the prosecutors in Cumberland County, said in his closing arguments: “They do not have evidence of purposeful discrimination. They do not have some secret society of prosecutors maniacally plotting to remove people from juries. They do not have any of that because there is no such evidence. It doesn’t exist. They have numbers.”

This prosecutor’s argument demonstrates the importance of EJS’s goal to replace the intent standard of the Fourteenth Amendment with a disparate impact standard. Instead of having to prove intent, criminal defendants could use statistical evidence of racial bias – the “numbers” referred to by the Thompson.

From the ACLU Blog of Rights: “The Robinson decision is really the first significant win since the Supreme Court dealt a blow to fairness in the death penalty 25 years ago this Sunday, ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp that statistical evidence of systemic racial disparities could not be used to overturn death sentences because such disparities were ‘inevitable.’ Today’s decision, and the RJA itself, stand as a powerful rebuke to the Supreme Court’s defeatist view of discrimination.”

To observe this tragic anniversary of McCleskey on Sunday, April 22, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and the Equal Justice Society (EJS) joined with organizations across the country – including the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, the Capital Litigation Communications Project, the Center for Death Penalty Litigation Inc., the Death Penalty Information Center, Equal Justice USA, the Innocence Project, the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the Proteus Fund – to raise awareness of how this landmark decision fundamentally threatens equality and opportunity in this country.

Together, we launched mccleskeyvkemp.com, a website that provides information about the ongoing crisis of race in criminal justice and offers information about specific activities that individuals and organizations can take to repeal the death penalty and ameliorate the racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The site includes publications and reports, media articles, links to take action, as well as information about the LDF/Columbia Law School Symposium, “Pursuing Racial Fairness in Criminal Justice: Twenty Years After McCleskey v. Kemp,” which was held in March of 2007 to mark the 20th anniversary of the McCleskey decision.

Join us in the effort to raise awareness of this landmark decision that every day threatens the ideals of equality and opportunity in this country. Visit mccleskeyvkemp.com to learn more.

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