Researcher, murderer's mom cite racial bias by prosecutors
Posted January 31, 2012
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — A researcher took the stand Tuesday in the state's first case involving the Racial Justice Act, discussing her findings about the dismissal of qualified black jurors in capital cases in North Carolina.
Barbara O'Brien, of Michigan State University, testified that the prosecutor in Marcus Reymond Robinson's 1994 murder trial was three times more likely to dismiss blacks during jury selection for capital cases than other races.
Attorneys are allowed to strike a certain number of potential jurors, but it cannot be because of race.
"Black is a significant predictor of state prosecutorial strike decisions, even when controlling for all other variables in our model," O'Brien said.
Prosecutors later began cross-examining O'Brien, questioning her methodology.
The testimony comes on the second day of the hearing in Fayetteville under the act, which gives death row inmates a chance to argue that racial bias played a role in their sentences.
A judge will determine whether racial bias was a factor. If so, Robinson's sentence would be commuted to life in prison without parole. The hearing is expected to last two weeks.
Robinson, 38, was sentenced to death in Cumberland County for the 1991 murder of Erik Tornblom, 17, who was driven into the woods, robbed and shot in the face with a sawed-off shotgun.
Robinson's mother, Shirley Burns, says she is confident the Racial Justice Act will keep her son off death row. She attended his trial 18 years ago and says she believes the prosecutor purposefully kept black people off the jury.
"I’m not going to say that (race) was the sole reason, but there were instances when race did play a part. I was there and I heard the questions that were asked," she said.
Prosecutors deny those claims.
Burns says she's not looking for vengeance, she's looking for truth.
"Statistics do not lie. The numbers are there. You know, we can talk the talk, but numbers tell the bottom line," Burns said. "It's not all about Marcus. We're making history for everyone."
Tornblom's family members wore buttons to court Tuesday that read, "Justice is color blind." His stepmother, Patricia Tornblom, said she doesn't think Robinson deserves anything "except to die."