July 19, 2012
Last April, Marcus Raymond Robinson , a former death row inmate in North Carolina, became the first beneficiary of that state’s Racial Justice Act, when his sentence was commuted to a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. See 2012 WLNR 8439889.
This hearing heightened calls for a repeal of the Racial Justice Act (more accurately, to reform the act in a way that make it more difficult to invoke). The North Carolina Legislature actually already voted through the changes, but Governor Perdue vetoed it.
North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act, N.C.G.S.A. s 15A-2010 et seq., in 2009. The act, broadly, allows North Carolinians to challenge their death sentences on the grounds that it was handed down as a result of racial discrimination, including discrimination in the exercise of peremptory challenges. Crucially, North Carolina doesn’t bar the use of statistical evidence to prove peremptory challenge discrimination; if a convict can show that members of a race were preferentially chosen for juries, or were preferentially excluded, that can be enough to have a capital sentence judicially commuted to life without parole. In fact, that’s exactly how Mr. Robinson did it.
Mr. Robinson should feel lucky challenged his sentence when he did. After failing to override the Governor’s veto in January, the legislature found enough votes for an override on July 2. See 2012 WLNR 13966766.
N.C.G.S.A. s 15a-2011 discusses the use of statistical evidence to challenge jury composition. For comparison see Kentucky’s version of the act, at KRS s 532.300, which doesn’t address jury composition as a factor to be raised in a fairness hearing.
To see the progress of the N.C. Legislature’s repeal, try the following search in NC-Billtrk: SU,TE(RACIAL /3 JUSTICE). For the actual legislation try racial /3 justice in nc-bills, though, given the override, you can run the search in NC-Legis as well.
To find material on Marcus Robinson’s commutation, I ran the following search in ALLNEWS: racial /3 justice /3 act & north /2 carolina & judge /3 weeks
Mr. Robinson was not the only man on death row to challenge his sentence. To see challenges filed by other prisoners, and to get a sense of the evidence that has been marshaled to show discrimination in North Carolina, try this simple Plain Language search in North Carolina State Trial filings: racial justice act
The repeal is effective immediately, which has led to the question of what version applies to challenges that were filed but not yet decided when it went through. That litigation hasn’t yet made its way into actual opinions, but you can run the following plain language search in North Carolina news: Racial justice repeal pending cases. Limiting the results to those since July 2 gives a sense of what the inmates are trying to get the older version of the law applied.