State News

Former prosecutor denies race played role in death penalty trial

Posted February 6, 2012

— Race didn't play a significant role in the exclusion of black jurors from the case of a death row prisoner who is challenging his sentence under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act, a former prosecutor testified Monday.

District Court Judge John Dickson, a former assistant district attorney in Cumberland County, said he didn't use peremptory challenges to exclude black jurors in the 1994 murder trial of Marcus Robinson.

Robinson, who is black, was sentenced to death for killing a white teenager in 1991.

"In no way, shape or form," Dickson said in response to a question from District Attorney Cal Colyer about whether race played a role in jury selection in the Robinson case and two other death penalty cases.

In 2009, the legislature approved the Racial Justice Act, which allows death row prisoners and defendants facing the death penalty to use statistics and other evidence to show racial bias played a significant role in either their sentences or prosecutors' decision to pursue the death penalty.

The law says that if the claim is successful, the prisoner's death sentence is reduced to life in prison without parole.

This hearing, expected to last about two weeks, addresses Robinson's claim that race was a factor in prosecutors' decisions to reject potential jurors who were black. Robinson also claims that race was a factor in the prosecutors' decisions to seek the death penalty against accused murderers and that the victims' race was a factor in whether juries issued death sentences.

Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks is hearing the case, which doesn't have a jury.

Dickson and Robinson's attorney got into a testy exchange during the hearing.

Marcus Robinson Inmate's defense claims blacks kept off his jury

"Sometimes racism is a subconscious factor, and I can be as guilty of it as you in practicing it – subconsciously," Dickson said. "In my mind, that has never been a significant factor in my selection of a jury.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys could have any of a hundred reasons for dismissing potential jurors, notably their views toward the death penalty, he said.

"There are things that have to do with jury selection that have absolutely nothing to do with race, one way or the other," he said.

"Excuse me, and I don't want to disparage prosecutors. I hold prosecutors in high regard," Ferguson interrupted.

"I doubt it," Dickson retorted.

Dickson testified that he excluded five black potential jurors in the pool for Robinson's trial and forwarded another five to the defense for consideration. He testified that he thought three blacks served on the 12-person jury, but the record shows the jury included two blacks and one American Indian.

"It's not a cut-and-dried situation," he said, referring to notes he took during jury selection about the black jurors he decided to exclude.

"(One woman) didn't believe in the death penalty. She didn't think she could vote for it under any circumstance because of a guilty conscience," he said.

Ferguson asked him whether he thought racism still exists in the judicial system.

“I think it occurs everywhere. It’s an imperfect world and always will be,” Dickson replied.

Robinson came close to death in January 2007, but a judge blocked his scheduled execution. His victim, 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, was shot in the face after he agreed to give Robinson and another man a ride from a convenience store. A co-defendant, Roderick Williams, is serving a life sentence.

In his opening statement, Cumberland County Assistant District Attorney Rob Thompson said the prosecution's case would involve more than the statistics that the defense offered as evidence last week.

"Statistics alone are not sufficient to complete the factual picture about capital cases in North Carolina," Thompson said.

The prosecution will show that race wasn't a significant factor in the selection of capital case juries in Cumberland County or North Carolina, he said. Weeks will "see that it's not appropriate to abandon work done by the court, defense attorneys, prosecutors and appellate courts," Thompson said.

A defense witness testified last week that qualified black jurors were struck at the rate of 50 percent, while non-black jurors were struck at a rate of 14.3 percent in Robinson's case. That meant that blacks were 3.5 times more likely to be struck than whites, the witness said.

Dickson said people can use statistics to support any argument – “My experience with statistics is you can make them say whatever damn thing you want to,” he said – and Thompson said his evidence would show that black potential jurors had the same chance of serving on Robinson's jury as whites.


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  • NCAries Feb 7, 2012

    Moral: stop punishing people for something that happened over 100 years ago. Get on with your life. Do the right thing and you will be respected for who you are and what is in your heart and mind and what you can accomplish! PERIOD!

    ha ha ha ha ha hahahahahahahahhahah.....OMG!

  • Tax Man Feb 6, 2012

    Can we please get the executions moving again? It has been way too long since we took a few murderers off death row the right way. Move this farce along and lets get back to clearing death row by eliminating the murderers there! If this convicted murderer did commit this crime he needs to die for it! He could have avoided the death penalty by just pleading guilty and saved all of us a lot of money. Now he needs to have his sentence carried out - unless there is some proof of his innocence - but that has nothing to do with the color of his skin or the makeup of the jury.

  • we-r-just-human Feb 6, 2012

    "Sometimes racism is a subconscious factor, and I can be as guilty of it as you in practicing it – subconsciously,"

    How can anyone prove this one way or the other... what a waste of time.

  • boneymaroney13 Feb 6, 2012

    If he had been executed, like he should have been, "for murder", the State and the prescious commission wouldn't be wasting money on this liberal nonsense.

  • vraptor Feb 6, 2012

    you can make a law and make it retro active. oh wait. they do it for tax laws. what was the mental eval at the time of the trial?

    the santa clause is a joke. you cannot blame it on santa clause..

  • ladyblue Feb 6, 2012


    well get out your thinking cap and put your listening ears on. there are people getting out of prison with this sentence. some are hitting loopholes or was governor on a crusade last year for nothing in reference to some cases before our system......and i think there are cases of abusing the racial issue and that some defense teams uses race when they run out of other options. Was this brought up as opposing at time of the trial or did the defense think they'd not get the death penalty during the trial. funny how it always becomes an issue when the going gets tough and options slim.. Has anyone asked this defendent why he chose to murder a young white kid...

  • ncouterbanks69 Feb 6, 2012

    Since this is all about race, if they take this murderer off death row, can we retry him for a hate crime to go along with the murder thing?!?!

    Only if he were white and murdered someone other than white....doesn't really matter as long as he is white and they are not. THEN you have a chance, this case? NO CHANCE

  • Kingfish Feb 6, 2012

    Since this is all about race, if they take this murderer off death row, can we retry him for a hate crime to go along with the murder thing?!?!

  • seankelly15 Feb 6, 2012

    seenbetterdaze - "Social Justice likes to find an explanation for Murder, Armed Robbery, Home invasions, etc. In order to LET'em GO, to repeat...which they seem to do if they get away with it."

    You have no clue what "social justice" means. It has nothing to do with letting criminals get away with anything. You need to read and understand the article. These death row prisoners are attempting to prove racial bias in their sentencing. If they prove their case then their death penalty converts to LIFE WITH NO CHANCE FOR PAROLE. No one is being let go... no one is having their verdict overturned.

  • seankelly15 Feb 6, 2012

    Ladyblue- the Phoenix - "As our criminal system got slacker ann started letting criminals get away with a hand smack it seems our criminals got more violent and more often.......people from other countries say come to america good place to commit murder as your chances of getting executed are very slim................."

    There is a absolutely no proof of your claim.