Three years ago, North Carolina enacted the the Racial Justice Act, which enables death row inmates to challenge their death sentence if race played a substantive factor in “decisions to seek or impose the sentence of death in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed.” Thus, an inmate will receive life in prison — as opposed to execution — if there is a pattern of race discrimination in the area where they were convicted, even if they cannot show that they were personally sentenced to die because of their race.
On Friday, Judge Greg Weeks became the first judge to apply this law — commuting the sentence of death-row inmate Marcus Robinson to life without parole after finding that race unfairly tainted the state’s jury selection processes over a 20-year period and in Robinson’s own case. “Race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise preemptory challenges during jury selection,” Judge Weeks told a packed courtroom in Fayetteville, NC after two months of deliberation (“preemptory challenges” refer to a prosecutor or defense attorney’s ability to remove jurors from a jury).
Week’s 167-page decision sets a new precedent for approaching race in criminal justice system by allowing defendants to rely on statistical evidence in making their claims. Prosecutors have indicated they will appeal the ruling within the prescribed 60-day time window.
In arguing his case, Robinson relied primarily on a study done by researchers at Michigan State University in order to demonstrate that race had acted as a statistically significant factor in state prosecutors’ exercise of peremptory strikes in capital cases around the time of his sentencing. Looking at the unadjusted data from strike decisions made in 173 capital cases, the MSU researchers found that nonwhite potential jurors were more than twice as likely to be stricken than their white counterparts in North Carolina. The chance of such a racial disparity occurring in a race-neutral environment is less than one in ten trillion, a figure that Weeks described as “staggering.”
Prosecutors attempted to rebut Robinson’s case by attacking the validity of relying on statistical modeling in the jury selection process, given its complexity. “Number and statistics are not enough,” argued Assistant District Attorney Cal Colyer in his Feb. 15 closing argument. “They are just not enough…Defense attorneys take folks off of juries who are pro-death penalty, and that’s not based upon race. The state takes folks off of juries who are against the death penalty, and that’s not based upon race. It’s based upon answers to questions, attitudes, opinions and beliefs.”
But the MSU study, which Weeks found to be a “valid, highly reliable, statistical study,” also adjusted the raw data to account for explanatory factors such as death-penalty prohibitions. The salient racial disparities remained.
In fact, Weeks concluded that the state’s case was not only insufficient to rebut Robinson’s evidence, but that “in many instances it advanced and strengthened that evidence.” Prosecutors in many instances intentionally discriminated against black venire members, the court found.
Weeks also stressed that Friday’s decision was not about Robinson’s actions or even the composition of the jury that sentenced him to death; instead, it and the Racial Justice Act more widely aim to uphold the integrity of the criminal justice system. That mandate is now under review at the NC General Assembly, however, where legislators are holding committee meetings to debate potential revisions to the statute after failing to repeal it over Gov. Bev Perdue’s veto last December. Regardless, Robinson’s case marks an important turn in the national conversation over race and the death penalty—and “should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in criminal proceedings,” according to Weeks.
“It is the hope of this Court,” he said, “that we now are at the beginning of the end of the struggle to end racial discrimination in our justice system.”