RACE: Three More Death Sentences Reduced in North Carolina Because of Bias in Jury Selection

On December 13, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks reduced the sentences of three death row inmates to life without parole after finding that race played a significant role in the selection of the juries in their cases. Applying North Carolina's revised Racial Justice Act, Judge Weeks relied partially on studies showing prosecutors struck qualified African-American jurors twice as often as other potential jurors, both in Cumberland County and statewide. He also relied on evidence presented earlier at a lengthy hearing showing that potential black jurors were often dismissed for reasons such as their reservations about the death penalty, criminal background, hardships, or employment, while white jurors with similar characteristics were selected. Evidence of racial bias was also shown in statements, notes, training materials, and testimony from the prosecutors. Evidence of trainings sponsored by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys showed prosecutors were trained in fabricating legally acceptable ways to exclude African Americans from juries. Judge Weeks, who had reduced the death sentence of another inmate earlier in the year, stated: "The court finds no joy in these conclusions. Indeed, the court cannot overstate the gravity and somber nature of its findings. Nor can the court overstate the harm to African-American citizens and to the integrity of the justice system that results from racially discriminatory jury selection practices." Kenneth Rose, one of the lawyers representing the defendants, said, “The evidence that our capital punishment system is infected by racial bias has become too great to deny.... We will not rest until we are assured that race plays no role in North Carolina’s death penalty.”

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SENTENCING: No Death Sentences in North Carolina for the First Time Since 1977

No new death sentneces were imposed in North Carolina in 2012, marking the first time since 1977 that this has occurred. The state had a record-low of four capital trials in 2012. Thomas Maher, executive director of North Carolina’s Indigent Defense Services, said, “In some ways, it’s a milestone. In other ways, it’s part of a trend.” In 2000, juries in the state presided at 57 capital trials, ultimately yielding 18 death sentences. In 2011, there were 12 capital trials resulting in 3 death sentences. North Carolina has not carried out an execution since 2006. This declining use of the death penalty is in line with a broader national trend. In 2011, there were 78 new death sentences in the U.S., a 75% drop from 1996, when 315 individuals were sentenced to death. It was the first time since 1976 that the country produced fewer than 100 death sentences in a single year.

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Challenges to Jury Selection Continue under North Carolina's Racial Justice Act

On October 2, Judge Gregory Weeks heard testimony regarding racial bias in jury selection, as three North Carolina death row inmates challenged their sentences under the state's Racial Justice Act.  Prof. Barbara O’Brien of Michigan State University provided statistical evidence of racial bias in the frequent rejection of African-American potential jurors from death penalty trials in the state.  According to O'Brien's study, qualified black jurors were twice as likely to be dismissed from serving in North Carolina death penalty cases as non-black jurors. Her study analyzed jury selection patterns under both the Racial Justice Act of 2009 and the more restrictive version that lawmakers passed in 2012, since there is dispute over which version of the law applies to the defendants. O'Brien found racial bias under both standards and in the cases of the individual defendants.  Earlier in 2012, Judge Weeks had reduced Marcus Robinson's death sentence to life because of racial bias found in his case.

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North Carolina Governor Vetoes Racial Justice Rollback Legislation

On June 28, North Carolina's Governor, Beverly Perdue, vetoed legislation that would have essentially repealed the state's Racial Justice Act (RJA), a law allowing death row inmates to challenge their death sentence based on statewide patterns of racial bias. The law Gov. Perdue vetoed would have removed the possibility of showing bias based on these sophisticated studies. The governor said, "As long as I am governor, I will fight to make sure the death penalty stays on the books in North Carolina. But it has to be carried out fairly — free of prejudice.”   Of the first ruling under the RJA, Gov. Perdue said, ”The judge's findings should trouble everyone who is committed to a justice system based on fairness, integrity, and equal protection under the law. Faced with these findings, the … General Assembly could have tried to strengthen our efforts to fix the flaws in our system. Willfully ignoring the pernicious effects of discrimination will not make those problems go away."  (Read Governor's full veto statement below). UPDATE: On July 2, the NC legislature overrode Gov. Perdue's veto.

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RACE: After Judge Finds Statewide Racial Bias in Jury Selection, North Carolina Legislators Move to Repeal Racial Justice Act

On June 13, the North Carolina House of Representatives approved a bill to essentially overturn the state's Racial Justice Act (RJA), a groundbreaking law that allowed a finding of racial bias in sentencing or jury selection based on sophisticated statistical studies. If passed into law, the new bill would require courts to revert to the older and more problematic process of finding direct racial bias by the prosecution or jury against an individual defendant in order to reverse a death sentence.  The new bill also limits any statistics used to the county or prosecutorial district where the trial occurred, instead of from across the state. Earlier in 2012 in the case of Marcus Robinson, Judge Gregory Weeks conducted the first evidentiary hearing under the existing Racial Justice Act and found system-wide racial bias in the state.  He resentenced Robinson to life imprisonment without parole. Judge Weeks concluded that the defendant “introduced a wealth of evidence showing the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina. The evidence, largely unrebutted by the State, requires relief in this case and should serve as a clear signal of the need for reform in capital jury selection proceedings in the future.” Rep. Rick Glazier, one of the key architects of the RJA, called the proposed legislation "extremely flawed,” and added, “This bill simply pays lip service to the notion that we have bias in our criminal justice system - and then simply eviscerates the only way left to prove it.”

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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."

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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.

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