In 1994, Marcus Robinson, who is black, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Erik Tornblom, a white teenager, in Cumberland County, North Carolina. He spent nearly 20 years on death row, but in 2012 his sentence was changed to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He was one of four death row inmates whose sentences were commuted by a judge who found that racial discrimination had played a role in his trials.
The reason their cases were reviewed was because of a 2009 North Carolina law known as racial Justice Act, which allowed judges to reduce death sentences to life without parole when defendants could demonstrate racial bias in their charges, jury selection, or sentence.
“The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina imposes our state’s harshest punishment on our most heinous criminals,” the former governor said. Bev Perdue said when he signed the bill into law, “the decision is based on the facts and the law, not on racial bias.”
At age 21, Robinson was the youngest person sentenced to death in North Carolina. When he was three years old, he was hospitalized with severe seizures after being physically abused by his father and was diagnosed with permanent brain dysfunction. However, those were not the only problematic aspects of his case.
“We continue to believe that the Racial Justice Act is a misconceived law that has very little to do with race and absolutely nothing to do with justice.”
Racial discrimination in jury selection has been prohibited since it was prohibited by the Supreme Court in its 1986 Supreme Court decision. Batson v. Kentucky, but Robinson’s judgment was infected with it. The prosecutor in the case, John Dickson, disproportionately turned down eligible black potential jurors. For example, he beat up a black would-be juror because the man had once been charged with public drunkenness. However, he accepted two “non-black” people with DWI convictions. Of the eligible members of the group, he hit half of the blacks and only 14 percent of the non-black members. In the end, Robinson was tried by a 12-person jury that included only three people of color: one Native American and two blacks.
Racial discrimination in jury selection was not uncommon in the North Carolina criminal justice system. A comprehensive Michigan State University study looked at more than 7,400 potential jurors in 173 cases between 1990 and 2010. Researchers found that state prosecutors eliminated 52.6% of eligible African-American potential jurors. and only 25.7 percent of all other potential jurors. This bias was reflected on death row. Of the 147 people on North Carolina’s death row, 35 inmates were sentenced by all-white juries; 38 by juries with only one black member.
Under the Racial Justice Act, those sentenced to death had one year from when the bill became law to make a motion. Nearly all of the state’s 145 death row inmates filed claims, but only Robison and three others — Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin and Christina Walters — got hearings. In 2012, Robinson’s was the first. In Cumberland County Superior Court, Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that race he had played a significant role in the trial, and Robinson was sentenced again to life in prison without parole. North Carolina appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.
An immediate protest followed the decision. The North Carolina District Attorneys Conference issued a statements saying, “Capital cases reflect the most brutal and heinous criminals in our society. Our legislators in the General Assembly must address whether the death penalty is an appropriate sentence for murderers, not masked as claims (of) racism in our courts.”
The ruling attracted much publicity from across the country, and North Carolina lawmakers were outraged. “There are definitely signs in the legislative record that there were some [lawmakers] that he really wanted to see the executions move forward,” says Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project, who also represents Robinson. Legislative staff circulated talking points for lawmakers arguing that the RJA turns “district attorneys into racists and convicted murderers into victims,” describing the law as “a way to avoid the death penalty and a moratorium on indefinite term on capital punishment”.
On the day that Judge Weeks resentenced Robinson, the president pro tempore of the Senate of the state Legislature, Phillip Berger, concern expressed that Robinson might be eligible for parole. He suggested that Robinson, who had just turned 18 when he committed the crime and would not have been considered a minor, would not be eligible for life in prison without the possibility of parole, citing a US Supreme Court ruling on parole. “We cannot allow cold-blooded killers to be released into our community, and I hope the state will appeal this decision,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe that the Racial Justice Act is a misconceived law that has very little to do with race and absolutely nothing to do with justice.”
The state legislature took up the challenge and voted to repeal the Racial Justice Act in 2013. This made it impossible for death row inmates to even attempt to have their sentences reviewed for racial bias, but left the fate of the four who had been sentenced to life in prison unclear. “The state’s district attorneys are nearly unanimous in their bipartisan conclusion that the Racial Justice Act created a loophole to avoid the death penalty and not a path to justice,” the governor said. Pat McCrory said in a statement at the time.
Although the law was still in effect when the four inmates’ sentences were reduced, they were still not safe from death row. Robinson’s sentence had been legally reduced, but the legal battle was just beginning.
In 2015, almost two years after the initial hearing, the North Carolina Supreme Court ordered the Superior Court to reconsider the reduced sentences for Robinson, Augustine, Golphin and Walters, saying the judge did not give the state enough time to prepare for the “complex” proceedings.
Last January, Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour ruled that because the RJA had been repealed, the four defendants could no longer use the law to reduce their sentences. “North Carolina is committed to taking an unprecedented look at the role of racial bias in capital punishment,” says Stubbs. But now, “the state Legislature has explicitly departed from its commitment and repeated the law.”
Robinson is back on death row at Central Prison in the state capital of Raleigh. In the petition to the state Supreme Court, Robinson’s attorneys point out that the double jeopardy clause, the law that prevents someone from being tried twice for the same crime, prevents North Carolina from trying to reimpose the death penalty because the 2012 RJA hearing acquitted him. of capital punishment.
“He has never been sentenced to death,” says Stubbs. “They have no basis to hold him on death row.”