US & Canada

Racial bias saves death row man

Marcus Robinson
Image caption Marcus Robinson was originally scheduled to be executed in 2007

A convicted killer has been ordered off death row in the US state of North Carolina after a judge ruled his trial had been tainted by racial bias.

Marcus Robinson's case was the first to be heard under North Carolina's controversial Racial Justice Act (RJA).

The RJA stipulates that death row inmates can appeal for relief, in the form of a life sentence, if race proved a factor during trial or sentencing.

Robinson, who is black, was sentenced to die for a 1991 murder.

North Carolina Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks found that Robinson's case fell under the provisions of the new law.

He showed that jury selection in the case was affected, citing a study from Michigan State University (MSU) which showed that qualified black jurors were systemically excluded from jury service, both across the state and specifically in Robinson's case.

Under the RJA, death row inmates can use statistics to prove patterns of racial bias.

In Robinson's case, his attorneys presented the MSU study, which showed that on average, North Carolina prosecutors in death penalty cases excluded qualified black jurors at more than twice the rate of qualified non-black jurors.

For Robinson's jury pool, qualified blacks were rejected 3.5 times more.

In his ruling, Judge Weeks found that the study was valid, and that the evidence presented in the trial showed both that Robinson deserved relief and that the jury selection process in North Carolina requires reform.

The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009, but the ensuing controversy meant that the Robinson hearing was the first to test the law.

Opponents say the law is merely a circumspect way to ban the death penalty entirely. They argue that broader statistics should not be applicable in specific trials.

After the law was signed, members of the North Carolina legislature passed another version that removed the stipulation about statistics. That version was ultimately vetoed by Governor Bev Perdue.

During the hearing, state lawyers argued that the Michigan State study was flawed, and that the qualified black jurors excluded from the trial were done so for non-racial reasons.

The prosecuting attorney and presiding judge for Robinson's original trial testified that the case had been fair.

The decision is likely to be appealed.

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