North Carolina

North Carolina

NEW RESOURCES: DPIC's Summary of First Ruling Under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act

The Death Penalty Information Center has prepared a summary of North Carolina v. Robinson, the first ruling issued under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act. The opinion by Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks on April 22, 2012, reduced Marcus Robinson's (pictured) death sentence to life without parole. DPIC's summary highlights the statistical evidence of racial bias in eliminating potential black jurors that led the court to rule in Robinson's favor.  The Court concluded "that Robinson has established that race was a significant factor in decisions of prosecutors to exercise peremptory strikes...from 1990 to 2010," and that the State's rebuttal was insufficient to rebut Robinson's case.  Graphs and pertinent quotes in the summary emphasize key points from the ruling and from the Michigan State University study that formed the backbone of Robinson's evidence.  See DPIC's summary of the ruling.

RACE: North Carolina Judge Overturns Death Sentence Under Racial Justice Act

On April 20, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks issued an historic ruling under the state's Racial Justice Act finding intentional bias by the state in selecting juries for death penalty cases.  In what may be the first ruling of its kind in the country, the court held that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” at the time of Marcus Robinson’s (pictured) trial. Robinson’s death sentence was reduced to life without parole. Earlier this year, lawyers for Robinson presented statistical studies showing that race played an improper role in jury selection in capital cases across the state. The evidence included findings from a study conducted by law professors at Michigan State University that concluded that qualified black jurors were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white jurors in the state’s 173 capital cases between 1990-2010. Judge Weeks said that the disparity was strong enough “as to support an inference of intentional discrimination.” Many other North Carolina inmates have also challenged their death sentences on similar grounds.

RACE: April 22 Marks 25th Anniversary of Landmark Decision in McCleskey v. Kemp

April 22 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in McCleskey v. Kemp in which the Court rejected (5-4) a claim of racial bias based on a sophisticated statistical study of the death penalty in Georgia.  Warren McCleskey, an African-American death row inmate convicted of killing a white police officer, presented the Court with analysis showing that defendants charged with killing white victims had odds of receiving a death sentence that were 4.3 times higher than defendants charged with killing black victims. McCleskey argued that his death sentence was unconstitutional under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court held, however, that the defendant had to show he was personally discriminated against in the course of the prosecution, and merely showing a disturbing pattern of racial disparities in Georgia over a long period of time was not sufficient to prove racial bias in his case. McCleskey also argued that when race is a factor in selecting who will die, the death penalty is unconstitutional under the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment, but the Court decided the study offered was insufficient to prove that the death penalty was being applied in an arbitrary manner. 

RACE: First Hearing Under Racial Justice Act Concludes in North Carolina

The first hearing to decide whether there has been significant evidence of racial discrimination in the application of North Carolina’s death penalty was concluded on February 15. Cumberland County Judge Gregory A. Weeks, who presided over the two-and-a-half week hearing, will offer a decision based on the state's Racial Justice Act in the next few weeks.  Much of the historic proceeding focused on whether race played an improper role in jury selection on capital cases around the time of death row defendant Marcus Robinson’s trial. The focus was not on the jury that sentenced Robinson to death, but on patterns revealed in many cases.  Judge Weeks’s decision will likely set a precedent for other North Carolina inmates who have also challenged their death sentences on similar grounds.  Lawyers for Marcus Robinson presented findings of a study conducted by law professors at Michigan State University that concluded that qualified black jurors were struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white jurors in the state’s 173 capital cases between 1990-2010. Malcolm Hunter, a lawyer for Robinson, argued, “Overt, explicit expressions of racial bias are rare,” but added that “there is a wide body of research [showing] that race has a huge effect on how we make decisions.”  Neil Vidmar, a law professor at Duke University, said the case "could set quite a precedent in North Carolina—and make a lot of others around the country sit up and take notice."

RACE: Historic Hearing Begun in North Carolina Under New Anti-Bias Law

The first hearing under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act convened at the beginning of February for death row inmate Marcus Robinson. The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009, allowing death row inmates to use empirical and statistical data to demonstrate racial bias in their conviction or sentencing. Following changes in North Carolina's legislature in the 2010 elections, there were efforts to repeal the Act.  Governor Perdue vetoed a repeal bill and the legislature could not override her veto.  Robinson, who is black, was sentenced to death for a 1991 murder of a white victim. He  is seeking to have his sentence reduced to life without parole by showing racial bias in the jury selection for his trial. Barbara O’Brien, an expert in this area from Michigan State University, testified that state prosecutors in capital trials excluded qualified black jurors at more than twice the rate of qualified non-black jurors. For Robinson’s jury pool, qualified blacks where 3.5 times more likely to be rejected. O’Brien said, “Being black does predict whether or not the state will strike the potential juror, even when controlling for these other variables.” Robinson’s hearing is expected to conclude by mid-February, and the presiding judge’s decision will shape the way the new law is interpreted in the future. Other studies in North Carolina have shown that those who murder white victims are more likely to receive the death penalty than those who murder black victims.

RACE: New Video Highlights Stories of Jurors Excluded from Death Penalty Cases

A new video produced by the American Civil Liberties Union features three North Carolina citizens who believe they were excluded from serving on juries in capital cases because of their race. The video was released in conjunction with the first court challenge brought under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act. The defendant, Marcus Robinson, is asking his death sentence be commuted to life without parole because potential African-American jurors were struck from his jury at a rate 3.5 times higher than other potential jurors. Laverne Keys (pictured), who was excluded from a capital jury in 1999, believes she was removed because of her race: “It made me feel like I was back in 1960, that racism is still very much alive. It makes you wonder whether all these people are being given a fair trial or given a fair consequence so far as the death penalty,” she said in the video.  Denny LeBoeuf, Director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, said, “The stories presented in this video make clear that the death penalty system in North Carolina and across the nation is plagued by discrimination. The Racial Justice Act is a crucial means of ensuring that no one is wrongfully executed because of racial bias.” Watch the video.

Relatives of Inmate Who Taunted Authorities About Ease on Death Row Paint a Different Picture

Relatives of a North Carolina inmate who bragged he had an easy life on death row recently made clear that he is seriously mentally ill and suffering greatly in his confinement.  Danny Hembree Jr. had written a letter to his local newspaper tauntingly describing his experience on death row as a life of leisure filled with color TV and naps.  However, his sister, Kathy Hembree Ledbetter, said he was a depressed man who had lashed out in hopelessness.  She apologized to the victim's families and the community for any hurt the original letter had cuased.  Hembree's family contradicted the letter he had written to the Gaston Gazette, stating it was not an accurate reflection of his life on death row, and that he is mentally ill and severely depressed.  Hembree's sister released a letter he sent to her in which he admitted, “I try to put on a nonchalant attitude for you guys but it is overwhelming and depressing to look at these walls and electric doors and bright lights 24-7 and digest the fact that I’m never going to leave until they murder me or I just die. Either way I’m never leaving here alive. I know I promised you that I would fight this but I’m almost fought out.” Kathy Ledbetter said, “I am sharing a letter he wrote recently to me in order to try to reveal the truth about his mental and emotional state which was brought out at his trial. He has had severe mental illness for over 35 years of his 50 years of life. He is not happy, he is not comfortable and he is not well. He is being punished for his crimes and he is in a bad place. I feel deeply for the families who have been affected by his actions, actions that were motivated by mental illness.”

North Carolina Governor Upholds Racial Justice Act, Calling Bias "Unacceptable"

North Carolina Governor Bev Perdue vetoed the bill that would have repealed the state's Racial Justice Act that was passed in 2009. The Act allows death row inmates to appeal their death sentences based on statistical studies showing racial bias. In issuing the veto, the governor, who supports the death penalty, said, “I am vetoing Senate Bill 9 for the same reason that I signed the Racial Justice Act two years ago: it is simply unacceptable for racial prejudice to play a role in the imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.”  State courts have only recently begun to hear the first appeals filed under the Racial Justice Act. The Act provides that a death row inmate who receives a reprieve through a racial-discrimination challenge will receive a sentence of life without parole.  The Governor also added, "[B]ecause the death penalty is the ultimate punishment, it is essential that it be carried out fairly and that the process not be infected with prejudice based on race." Civil rights leaders and some family members of murder victims had met with the governor and encouraged her to veto the repeal, which was passed after significant changes in the legislature in 2010.

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