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Monday, January 30, 2012

Marcus Robinson vs NC's All WHITE Juries & Judge Greg Weeks: Racial Justice vs Death Penalty

Judge rejects delays as first hearing opens under N.C.'s Racial Justice Act

Change is coming to North Carolina through a new law that lets death row prisoners challenge their sentences if race was a significant factor at sentencing, a defense attorney said Monday of the first case involving the state's Racial Justice Act.

The hearing involving death row prisoner Marcus Robinson opened Monday afternoon in Cumberland County Superior Court after Judge Greg Weeks handled motions earlier in the day and turned down prosecutors' request for extra time.

They wanted a break of eight weeks to finish a statewide survey of prosecutors about their capital cases because not all district attorneys have responded to their requests for help.

Weeks refused, saying he had continued the case in September and November. "The fault in the incomplete study ... is in the prosecutors who have not complied with your request to do what you asked them to do," the judge said.

"It has been a long time coming, but finally change is coming," defense attorney James Ferguson of Charlotte told the judge, who will decide the case without a jury.

In 2009, the Legislature approved the 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 the prisoner's sentence is reduced to life in prison without parole if the claim is successful.

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.

Robinson is black. His victim, 17-year-old Erik Tornblom who was killed in a robbery in 1991, was white. A co-defendant, Roderick Williams, is serving a life sentence.

Ferguson showed a statewide map of North Carolina's prosecutorial districts at he said showed race was significant factor in prosecutors' decisions to use peremptory challenges to eliminate black jurors in almost every district.

Black jurors were at least 1.2 times more likely to be rejected than non-white jurors in counties that had applicable death row cases, he said. The range went to more than 3.1 percent, he said, basing his numbers on a study by researchers at Michigan State University.

The study by two law professors also showed that of almost 160 people on death row at the time of the study, 31 had all-white juries and 38 had only one person of color.

"This case is important because it provides an opportunity for all of us to recognize that race far too often has been a significant factor in jury selection in capital cases," Ferguson said.

One of the researchers, Barbara O'Brien, was the first witness, testifying about the methodology of the study.

During a break, Tornblom's stepmother said it was Robinson who brought race into the case because he said he was looking for a white person to target. "The racial part was on his side," said Patricia Tornblom of Hope Mills.

Tornblom gave Robinson and Williams Jr. 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 is attending the hearing with restraints after Weeks ruled Monday that he should be unshackled in the courtroom. Members of Robinson's family, including his mother, also were in the courtroom.

NC judge weighs death row inmate Marcus Robinson's racial claims

The first Appeal under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act, which allows death row prisoners a chance to argue that race was a significant factor in their case, went before a judge in Fayetteville Monday.

Marcus Robinson was sentenced to death in Cumberland County for the 1991 murder of Erik Tornblom, but his attorneys say race was a factor in jury selection.

Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks has set up to two weeks aside to hear Robinson's case.

Prosecutors filed a motion Monday to delay the hearing so they could have more time to prepare, but Weeks denied the motion, saying the case will move forward.

Defense attorneys then filed a motion to ban any gruesome crime scene photos from being shown in court.

Death penalty opponents say the prosecutors who won Robinson's conviction in 1994 dismissed qualified black jurors more than three times the rate of white jurors.

Almost all of the 157 inmates on North Carolina's death row have filed appeals under the two-year-old law. Winning an appeal under the law commutes a death sentence to one of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

It was unclear in the fall if Weeks would be allowed to preside over the case after prosecutors attempted to call him as a witness. They said it would help refute the statistics and evidence showing racial bias during jury selection.

Robinson's lawyers believe it was a power play prosecutors used to try and remove Weeks, who is black, from the case.

In November, Superior Court Judge Quentin Sumner ruled that prosecutors failed to show that Weeks was a necessary witness for their case, quashing a subpoena to have him testify.

Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed a bill in December that would have essentially repealed the Racial Justice Act, saying it is essential the legal process isn't tarnished by prejudice.

Perdue signed the Racial Justice Act into law shortly after taking office in 2009. North Carolina and Kentucky are the only states in the country with these types of laws.

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Sources: ABC News, McClatchy Newspapers, Newsobserver, WRAL, Google Maps

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