Fayetteville, N.C. — A Cumberland County Superior Court judge made history Friday morning when he commuted a death row inmate’s sentence in the first test of North Carolina’s fledgling Racial Justice Act.
Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ruled that race significantly influenced jury selection in Marcus Robinson’s 1994 trial in the 1991 shooting death of a white 17-year-old, Erik Tornblom.
The ruling means Robinson, a 38-year-old black man, will be taken off death row and will serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Weeks said Robinson's attorneys "presented a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, persuasive and distorting role of race in jury selection in North Carolina."
"When the government's choice of jurors is tainted with racial bias, that overt wall casts down over the parties, the jury and the court to adhere to the law throughout the trial," Weeks said. "The very integrity of the court is jeopardized when a prosecutors discrimination invites cynicism respecting the jury’s neutrality and undermines public confidence."
The case is the first of more than 150 pending cases to get an evidentiary hearing before a judge under the Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that allows death row prisoners and capital murder defendants to challenge their sentences or prosecutors' decisions with statistics and other evidence.
Weeks said that, by enacting the Racial Justice Act, the General Assembly made clear that North Carolina's laws reject the influence of race discrimination in the administration of the death penalty.
"It’s a widely accepted truth that race discrimination has historically had an impact on state policy in every aspect of our private and public lives, including education, housing, employment and criminal justice, " Weeks said in his ruling. "Race still divides us, and the Racial Justice Act recognizes that the justice system is not immune from this legacy of discrimination in our nation."
Prosecutors said Friday they planned to challenge Weeks' decision, and Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West declined further comment while the case was being appealed.
"There's justice at last," Weeks' mother, Shirley Burnes, said. "It's bittersweet, because I think about the family (of Erik Tornblom) and my son, but you've got to treat people right. You've got to treat people fair. That's what we depend on when we go through the system."
Tornblom's family left the courtroom visibly upset without commenting on the ruling.
Robinson and co-defendant Roderick Williams Jr. murdered Tornblom in 1991 after the teen gave his killers a ride from a Fayetteville convenience store. Tornblom was forced to drive to a field where he was shot with a sawed-off shotgun.
Robinson came close to death in January 2007, but a judge blocked his scheduled execution.
During a hearing in February, Robinson's defense team argued prosecutors' decisions to reject potential jurors who were black were influenced by race.
They cited a Michigan State University study that concluded black jurors were more likely to be dismissed than white jurors.
The study found that, of almost 160 people on North Carolina's death row, 31 had all-white juries, and 38 had only one person of color. A defendant is 2.6 times more likely to be sentenced to death if at least one of the victims is white, the study also found.
Union County prosecutor Jonathan Perry, who helped the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office argue the case against Robinson, said the study was untrustworthy because it was based on a too-limited sample of death penalty cases to provide meaningful results. The study also failed to detect numerous nonracial reasons that a person might be peremptorily struck from a jury, Perry said.
In his ruling, Weeks reiterated the study's findings, calling it very reliable and an example of the continued role of race in the justice system in Cumberland County and across the state. According to the court, prosecutors deliberately excluded black jurors from service in Robinson's case.
"The state's evidence not only failed to rebut Robinson's evidentiary showing, but in many respects, it reinforced and strengthened it," Weeks said. "The evidence should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in capital jury selection proceedings in the future."
Weeks also noted that discrimination in jury selection across the state undermines the ability of the justice system to appear unbiased in capital cases.
"The very integrity of the court is jeopardized when a prosecutor's discrimination invites cynicism respecting the jury’s neutrality and undermines public confidence," he said.
Weeks' ruling prompted responses, both applauding the decision and speaking out against it.
People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, one of the most noted advocates for the Racial Justice Act, released a statement calling Weeks' ruling "a huge victory for justice, for the people of North Carolina, for the South and the country as a whole."
"This historic victory for justice would not have come about if not for the courage and persistence of ordinary North Carolina citizens who challenged these legacies of discrimination and demanded passage of the RJA," the nonprofit group said in a statement."
The North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP also released a statement: "Today is a day where we must reflect on a dual tragedy. The loss of life of the Tornblom family is a tragedy that should grieve us all, and the Court's finding is a reminder of the tragedy that racial bias still affects and impacts the judicial process."
The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys said it wasn't surprised but "respectfully disagreed."
"Race should never play a role in the criminal justice system; not in decisions made by prosecutors, nor rulings made by judges," it said. "Claims of racial bias are best addressed by the trial judge hearing the case, not by generalized statistics presented more than 20 years after conviction."
Last year, the Republican-led Legislature tried to repeal the Racial Justice Act, but Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed the effort. A subsequent vote in the General Assembly fell short of the required number of votes to override the veto.
A House committee is now looking at ways to narrow the scope of the law.
Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger responded to Friday's ruling, saying he's "deeply concerned" that it could make Robinson eligible for parole. He was convicted prior to a 1994 change in state law that allowed prisoners serving life sentences to be eligible for release.
"We cannot allow cold-blooded killers to be released into our community, and I expect the state to appeal this decision," Berger, R-Rockingham, said. "Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe the Racial Justice Act is an ill-conceived law that has very little to do with race and absolutely nothing to do with justice."
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, also released a statement, saying the law has worked as it was intended.
"Mr. Robinson will spend the rest of his life in prison without parole for the crimes he committed," Hackney said. "That is appropriate. The courts corrected a death sentence in which race played a significant role. That is also appropriate."