RACE: North Carolina Judge Overturns Death Sentence Under Racial Justice Act

On April 20, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks issued an historic ruling under the state's Racial Justice Act finding intentional bias by the state in selecting juries for death penalty cases.  In what may be the first ruling of its kind in the country, the court held 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 Marcus Robinson’s (pictured) trial. Robinson’s death sentence was reduced to life without parole. Earlier this year, lawyers for Robinson presented statistical studies showing that race played an improper role in jury selection in capital cases across the state. The evidence included findings from a study conducted by law professors at Michigan State University that concluded that qualified black jurors were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white jurors in the state’s 173 capital cases between 1990-2010. Judge Weeks said that the disparity was strong enough “as to support an inference of intentional discrimination.” Many other North Carolina inmates have also challenged their death sentences on similar grounds.

North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act allows reviewing courts to overturn death sentences based on statistical evidence of racial bias.  April 22 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in McCleskey v. Kemp in which the Court rejected (5-4) a claim of racial bias based on a sophisticated statistical study of the death penalty in Georgia. The Court held that in order to succeed under an Equal Protection claim the defendant had to show he was personally discriminated against in the course of the prosecution, and merely showing a disturbing pattern of racial disparities over a long period of time was not sufficient to prove racial bias in his case.  The Court also rejected the claim that Georgia's death penalty system was arbitrary as shown by the same studies.  Justice Powell, writing for the majority, indicated that legislation such as that passed in North Carolina, could make a difference in the assessment of such claims.

(C. Robertson, "Judge Blocks Death Sentence Under Law on Racial Disparity," New York Times, April 20, 2012).  See Race.