Durham, N.C. — The head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP says the decision to spare the life of a death row inmate under the Racial Justice Act was a breath of new life into the state Constitution's promise of equal protection under the law.
The Rev. William Barber joined other activists at a news conference Monday. He called last week's decision in the case of Marcus Robinson a direct challenge to what he termed the racially biased practice of capital punishment and a criminal justice system tainted by bias.
"The time has come to render racial discrimination illegal. The time has come for us in North Carolina and America to face the ugliness of the continued realities of racial discrimination and racial disparity in our criminal justice system, and the time is now to stop it," Barber said. "This is not just a black issue. This should be an issue for all North Carolinians. Because once you kill somebody, you can't say, 'Oops.' You can't bring them back."
The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys issued a statement saying they dispute that race is a significant factor in death penalty cases. The prosecutors group also says race should never play a role in the criminal justice system or decisions by prosecutors.
"There should not be anymore RJA claims filed because almost every single death row inmate, (156 of 158) regardless of the defendant's race or the race of the victim, has already filed a claim under the Racial Justice Act," Susan Doyle, president of the N.C. Conference of DAs said in a statement. "This was clearly not the intent of the Racial Justice Act when it was discussed and later passed."
"As prosecutors, we are dedicated to spending all the necessary resources, manpower and money to ensure that the death penalty is applied appropriately and fairly in North Carolina," Doyle added. "However, the intent of the Racial Justice Act and its supporters is to simply clog the court system in a back door effort to eliminate the death penalty in North Carolina."
A House committee is looking at ways to narrow the scope of the law.
"I think it's fairly clear that the General Assembly feels that that was legislation that was ill advised and should be repealed," said Senate leader Phil Berger.
The decision in Robinson's case was the first test of a 2009 state law allowing death row prisoners and capital murder defendants to challenge their sentences or prosecutors' decisions with statistics and other evidence beyond documents or witness testimony.
Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ruled that race significantly influenced jury selection in 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."
Duke Law professor Neil Vidmar closely followed the debate and said he reviewed the data used in the case – a Michigan State study that determined black jurors were more likely to be dismissed than white jurors.
"What the data show and the judge reports is, county after county after county, that same pattern shows up," he said.
Vidmar says the ruling validates the data and is likely to be used as a precedent in other cases. He also believes it will be difficult for opponents of the Racial Justice act to make an argument for repealing it after the ruling.
"I think it is going to be very hard, now that these data are before a court, for a legislature, no matter which party is in control, to simply just say, 'Well, this is nothing,'" Vidmar said.
The case is the first of more than 150 pending cases to get an evidentiary hearing before a judge under the Racial Justice Act.
Prosecutors said they planned to challenge Weeks' decision, and Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West declined further comment while the case was being appealed.