NC Trial Addresses Racism in Application of Death Penalty

In 2009, North Carolina enacted the Racial Justice Act which requires a judge to convert a death sentence to life in prison without parole if it is later shown that race played a significant role in the conviction or sentence. To make the showing, the Act permits the introduction of statistical evidence.

The defendant doesn't have to prove race caused the verdict, only that it played a significant role, meaning:

...that race weighed heavily in prosecutors' and jurors' decisions concerning the death penalty "in the county, the prosecutorial district, the judicial division, or the State at the time the death sentence was sought or imposed."

Closing arguments concluded yesterday in the first hearing under the Act, which has taken 2 1/2 weeks. The case involves Marcus Reymond Robinson, an African American, who was sentenced to death for killing a 17 year old white man. He is challenging his conviction and sentence, arguing there was racial bias in jury selection and in the criminal justice system.[More...]

The prosecution argued the reason Blacks are kept off the jury is not their race, but because they tend to be more liberal and more opposed to the death penalty, had criminal records, or in its view, were otherwise not desirable jurors. The defense argued that is just a pretense which masks underlying racism.

150 other cases are pending, so the Judge's ruling will be quite significant.

According to the state's expert, Christopher Cronin of the Methodist University political science department:

Race as a variable is one of the variables, and may simply indicate a minority population that has a cultural and political ideology that would make it less likely to be favored by the majority population, which is represented by the state," Cronin said. "And the state's interest is to represent that majority population and its intent for laws, punishment, etc."

The state also called three judges who had presided over death penalty trials and testified they perceived no racism and the prosecutors were highly ethical. One law professor summed it up by saying:

"It's hard to read the tea leaves in a case like this. But the case could set quite a precedent in North Carolina—and make a lot of others around the country sit up and take notice."

The defense is relying upon a study by researchers at Michigan State University, that found that since 1990, North Carolina prosecutors in 173 death penalty trials struck twice as many qualified black potential jurors than white.
Robinson's jury was composed of 2 Black, 1 American Indian and 9 White persons.

The state countered with:

"They've brought you numbers, conjecture and speculation," he told Judge Weeks. "But they do not have evidence of discrimination or evidence of some secret society of prosecutors plotting to exclude black jurors."

Which is exactly why the legislature wrote the law the way they did. It specifically allows the use of statistical evidence. Statistical evidence is deemed sufficient to make the showing. It seems more reliable to me than the self-serving testimony of a prosecutor who says "I was fair" or a judge who says "My trials was fair and the prosecutor was honorable." There are hidden biases here that the numbers seem to bear out.

One potential problem with the law is that it doesn't provide define or provide clear guidance with respect to how the judge makes the final decision that the role race played was "significant." The Wall. St. Jornal says:

The law doesn't define exactly how "significant" race had to have been in a decision in order to justify overturning a sentence.

The facts of the case are set out in this 2006 ruling on Robinson's Habeas Petition.

Republicans and prosecutors opposed the law. One prosecutor says:

The Racial Justice Act has nothing to do with race or justice," Doyle said Wednesday. "It's a back-door attempt to overturn the death penalty in North Carolina."

The decision is expected in a few weeks.

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  • If They Would just Scratch... (5.00 / 0) (#1)
    by ScottW714 on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 11:13:04 AM EST
    ...the Death Penalty, all this silliness could stop.  I don't need judges and prosecutors and all the flim/flam to know race plays into death penalty cases.  Stats don't don't have agendas or egos and I suspect black people have a far better chance of the Death Penalty in capital cases.  Certainly race plays a part in every crevice of the criminal justice system.  From being suspected, to the lawyer, to the deal/trial.

    The Innocence Project has proven they are far more likely to be found guilty because of faulty witness identification, when they were innocent.

    They sure put a lot of energy into all the offshoots of the Death Penalty, when if it was off the table, all of it would be gone.  From money, to common sense, the death Penalty doesn't make sense, it only appeals to the ugliest side of humanity, primal revenge.  Yet we want to treat it like any other punishment, in which we need to make it humane and fair, when in fact, it's murder.  

    Racists, and proud of it (5.00 / 0) (#6)
    by NYShooter on Fri Feb 17, 2012 at 03:40:18 AM EST
    "The prosecution argued the reason Blacks are kept off the jury is not their race, but because they tend to be more liberal and more opposed to the death penalty, had criminal records, or in its view, were otherwise not desirable jurors. The defense argued that is just a pretense which masks underlying racism."

    What "pretense?" What "masks?" What "underlying?"

    Sounds like Deliberate, flagrant, Bald faced Racism to me. Nothing subtle about it.

    They might just as easily have said, "Yeah, so we're Racists; what's the problem?"

    And, presumably, (none / 0) (#7)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Fri Feb 17, 2012 at 11:42:57 PM EST
    the defense attorneys argued FOR blacks on the jury. You know, FOR jurors who they thought might be more inclined to empathize with THEIR side. Dam racists.

    I'd imagine other attorneys are sexists, ageists, drug-ists, etc-ists, depending on who's being tried and for what...


    It would be interesting to see how many (none / 0) (#2)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 12:32:56 PM EST
    non-black prospective jurors were not selected for the trial due to having liberal views and/or criminal records.

    Where do you get (none / 0) (#3)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 01:38:57 PM EST

    Where do you get statistical evidence when the detail of every case is unique?  This seems like an excuse to make things up.


    Next step (none / 0) (#4)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 01:43:59 PM EST

    Why should one get LWOP instead of parolable life if the same factors apply?  After all, LWOP is really no more than death by confinement.


    because some crimes merit it (none / 0) (#5)
    by nyjets on Thu Feb 16, 2012 at 03:18:06 PM EST
    There are some crimes where LWOP is the only just punishment. And unlike death penality, person with LWOP dies when nature says it is time to die.