Ruling allows black judge to hear Racial Justice Act case
Posted November 10, 2011
Nashville, N.C. — A black Superior Court judge will be allowed to hear the first appeal under the state's Racial Justice Act after another judge on Thursday ended prosecutors' attempts to call him as a witness in the case.
Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks was assigned to hear Marcus Robinson's appeal because he is the senior resident judge in Cumberland County.
Prosecutors wanted to use his position against him, saying they might call Weeks to testify because he has presided over several death penalty trials during his 23 years on the bench. As a witness, he wouldn't be allowed to handle the case.
"We do not think that he's not an appropriate judge to be hearing cases," Cumberland County Assistant District Attorney Calvin Colyer said. "Just not this one because he is more important to us ... as a witness than he is as our judge."
Legal experts and Robinson's attorney questioned that move, saying they thought Weeks' race played a role in prosecutors' efforts to stop him from hearing the case.
"We never expected we'd be standing before a court ... trying to prevent the state from disqualifying an African-American judge," said James Ferguson, an attorney for the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which is handling Robinson's appeal.
Weeks didn't attend Thursday's court hearing, but his attorney, Fred Webb, called the subpoena "frivolous."
Ferguson said the move was "unprecedented" and called for it to "be denied on the spot."
"It should be denied unequivocally so that we can proceed with the merits" of Robinson's appeal, he said.
Superior Court Judge Quentin Sumner ruled that prosecutors failed to show that Weeks is a necessary witness for their case, and he quashed the subpoena.
After the hearing, all of the attorneys shifted to Fayetteville, where Weeks presided over a hearing at which he delayed Robinson's hearing until January. It had been scheduled to begin next week.
Robinson, 38, who is black, was sentenced to death after being convicted of shooting and killing Erik Tornblom, a white man, during a 1991 robbery.
The Racial Justice Act allows death row inmates to challenge their sentence on the grounds of racial bias. Robinson has alleged that prosecutors excluded a disproportionate number of blacks from his trial jury.
Almost all of the 157 inmates on North Carolina's death row have filed appeals under the 2-year-old law. Winning an appeal under the law commutes a death sentence to one of life in prison without the possibility of parole.