Marcus Reymond Robinson is a convicted murderer waiting out the remainder of his days on North Carolina’s death row. He hopes his time there will be limited, not by execution but by a commutation to a life sentence. He is the first to challenge his death sentence on the basis of racial bias in jury selection, something that’s possible in N.C. due to the Racial Justice Act.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009 and was designed to ensure racism played no part in the death sentence of any offender in that state. But Robinson’s case is the first to be heard under the Act and has caught the national attention of criminal justice experts, lawmakers, and death penalty advocates and opponents alike.
Opponents of the act say it’s a back door to repealing the death penalty; they are also critical of how the cases are being challenged.
So far more than 150 inmates on North Carolina’s death row have petitioned the state for hearings under the Racial Justice Act.
The Act allows inmates to cite “statistical patterns in statewide jury selection—rather than focusing solely on their own cases—to argue that their jury selection or sentencing was racially biased.”
Those statistics are based off of a University of Michigan study that looked at the role of race in jury selection in N.C. death row cases. The study found that prosecutors eliminated blacks from the jury pool twice as often as non-black jurors. In Robinson’s case, blacks were eliminated from the pool 3.5 times the rate of white potential jurors.
Many critics of the Act are furious that defendants are allowed to cite statistics unrelated to their own trial to prove that their case may have been tainted by racial biases in jury selection.
“This whole study is a sham,” says the Robinson’s victim’s mother. “What does all this stuff from other cases have to do with this case?”
Lawmakers sought to repeal the Racial Justice Act in 2011 but their measure was vetoed by Governor Beverly Perdue who said, “It is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.”
Around the country, experts are eyeing the case as it could pave the way for similar laws in other states. Twenty other states have conducted studies similar to the University of Michigan study that prompted the law in North Carolina, and they’ve likely had similar findings.
Racial bias can play a role in cases far smaller than death penalty cases. Proving such bias, however, is another matter. Sometimes it’s not until the case is resolved and going through the appeals process that such allegations are treated seriously.