National media analyze recent North Carolina racial-justice ruling that takes man off death row

From the New York Times to Fox News and CNN, national media are examining the recent case in which a North Carolina judge determined that racial bias may have played a role in the death-row sentence given to Marcus Reymond Robinson 18 years ago.

In 2009, North Carolina enacted the Racial Justice Act, “which allows future defendants and current death row inmates to present evidence, including statistical patterns, suggesting that race played a major role in their being sentenced to death,” the New York Times explains in an April 21 article, ‘Bias Law Used to Move a Man Off Death Row.”

Last year, the Republican-controlled state legislature attempted to amend — the law:

Prosecutors made a push several weeks ago for a major tweaking of the 2-year-old law before any inmate awaiting execution has an opportunity to be heard in court. Public defenders responded with pleas of their own: Give the law a chance, they said. Let one case go all the way through the court system before giving up on a process being watched by legal scholars across the country.

Raleigh News&Observer, Nov. 11, 2011.

The North Carolina Senate did indeed rewrite the law, gutting it, said critics. But Gov. Bev Perdue, who had signed it into law in 2009, vetoed the vote.

And the Robinson case proceeded.

On Friday, April 20, “The 39-year-old convicted murderer [became] the first North Carolina death row inmate to have his sentence converted to life without possibility of parole using the state’s fledgling and unique Racial Justice Act,” the Raleigh News&Observer reported. “Under the 2-1/2-year-old law, Judge Gregory Weeks was able to weigh statistics while considering Robinson’s claims that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentence.”

“The landmark ruling could be the first of many under the law,” the New York Times’ April 21 article reported. “It is also likely to influence the nation’s enduring discussion over capital punishment, particularly with an increasing number of states deciding to repeal the death penalty outright.”

From Fox News:

Race played a “persistent, pervasive and distorting role” in jury selection and couldn’t be explained other than that “prosecutors have intentionally discriminated” against Robinson and other capital defendants statewide, Weeks said. Prosecutors eliminated black jurors more than twice as often as white jurors, according to a study by two Michigan State University law professors [that Judge Gregory ] Weeks said he found highly reliable.

Robinson’s case is the first of more than 150 pending cases to get an evidentiary hearing before a judge. Prosecutors said they planned to challenge Weeks’ decision, and District Attorney Billy West declined further comment.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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