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.

Many other inmates have filed similar challenges under the Act. Defense attorneys argue that North Carolina’s death penalty law is unpredictably applied, and thus allows for racial bias to influence decisions rather than the relative severity of the crime. “Currently, only about 1% of the people who are accused of intentional murder are receiving the death penalty. There are wild disparities,” says Malcolm Hunter, one of Robinson’s lawyers and executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. I could show you the summaries of 50 cases any year in North Carolina and say ‘I want to pick out the two or three that get the death penalty’, and you’d never be able to do it.”

(K. Dailey, “Death penalty case puts racism on trial in North Carolina,” BBC News, February 7, 2012). See Race.