March 01, 2012

First Death Row Prisoner Granted Relief Under North Carolina Racial Justice Act

Krista Dolan

In a landmark decision issued April 20, 2012, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks commuted the death sentence of Marcus Robinson to life without parole, finding that race was a significant factor in prosecutors’ decisions to exercise peremptory juror strikes, both in Mr. Robinson’s case specifically and more generally in death penalty cases throughout the county and state.

The ruling came just two days before the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McClesky v. Kemp, which held that prisoners could not use statistical evidence to prove claims of racial bias. North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (“RJA”), a 2009 law that allows a death row prisoner to challenge his sentence using statistical evidence of systemic racial bias in the administration of the death penalty, was passed in part as a response to the Supreme Court’s call in McClesky for legislatures to address issues of racial prejudice in capital punishment.

The McClesky decision has been widely criticized. In that case, decided on April 22, 1987, a death row prisoner alleged that Georgia’s capital sentencing process was administered in a racially discriminatory manner. Warren McClesky challenged his sentence using a statistical study that showed that defendants whose victims are white are more likely to be sentenced to death than those whose victims are black. The study further showed that black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants. In its decision, the Court conceded that there is a risk of racial bias in a jury’s decision but concluded that the risk did not amount to a constitutional violation. Justice Brennan, in a lengthy dissent joined by Justices Blackmun, Marshall and Stevens, said that the Court’s jurisprudence requires it to be concerned with the “risk” of arbitrary sentences, not the “proven fact of one.” He further stated that it was clear from the study that the statistical evidence “relentlessly documents the risk that Mr. McClesky’s sentence was influenced by racial considerations.”

The RJA, a legislative answer to McClesky, allows prisoners who can make the requisite showing under the Act to have their death sentences commuted to life without parole. To be successful, a prisoner must prove that race was a “significant factor” in decisions seeking the death penalty within the county, district, division, or state where he was sentenced. The significant factor requirement can be satisfied by showing either: 1) that death sentences were disproportionately sought for defendants of one race, 2) that death sentences were sought more frequently on behalf of victims of one race, or 3) that race was a significant factor in peremptory strikes of jurors. Importantly, to succeed under the RJA, a prisoner need not show that the prosecutor acted with discriminatory intent or prejudice.

Marcus Robinson, an African American death row prisoner convicted in Cumberland County, North Carolina, claimed that prosecutors improperly struck half the blacks eligible to be on his jury. He also claimed that race played a systemic role in prosecutors’ decisions to seek the death penalty and that the victim’s race played a systemic role in juries’ decisions to issue the death penalty. During a nearly three-week evidentiary hearing that concluded on February 16, 2012, prosecutors and defense attorneys presented testimony from statisticians and researchers. 

Judge Weeks, in a 167-page ruling, found that Mr. Robinson had established through the use of statistical evidence that race was a significant factor in prosecutors’ peremptory jury strikes, both in Cumberland County and the state, in 1994 when his trial occurred. The State’s argument, Weeks said, was insufficient to rebut this finding. The court further found, though not required under the RJA, that race was a significant factor in the prosecutor’s decisions to peremptorily strike jurors specifically in Mr. Robinson’s trial.

The RJA has not been without criticism. Mr. Robinson’s hearing was held just one month after the Act’s near-repeal due to a bill introduced by state Senate Republicans. The repeal bill, SB 9, would have severely limited the impact of the RJA by prohibiting defendants from using the type of statistical evidence relied upon by Mr. Robinson.  North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue vetoed the repeal bill on December 14, 2011. The Senate voted to override her veto on January 4, 2012, but the bill was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary in the House of Representatives and is unlikely to be taken up again soon.

North Carolina currently has 156 prisoners on death row: 80 are black and 61 are white. Nearly all have filed complaints under the RJA.

Krista Dolan

Legal Intern