Death Row Inmates Appeal to NC Supreme Court Over Racial Bias

North Carolina’s Supreme Court recently listened to arguments about the role that racial bias played in the death penalty cases of six incarcerated people. The defendants claim racial bias played a key role in their cases. The incarcerated inmates argue they should not be executed but given life in prison without parole.

The arguments before the state’s highest court are the latest development in an ongoing legal battle over racial discrimination in death penalty cases, according to NPR. In 2009, state Democrats passed the Racial Justice Act (RJA), which allowed incarcerated people on death row to challenge their sentencing if they could provide evidence that race was a “significant factor” in being sentenced to death.

More than 90 percent of the 152 people on death row, including some white people, filed motions under the new act after it passed, The Atlantic reported. However, it was repealed four years later by the state’s newly elected Republican majority.

“The court must answer a key question for North Carolina,” said attorney David Weiss from Durham’s Center for Death Penalty Litigation in a statement. The law firm is part of a coalition representing the six defendants.

“Will our state abide by its constitution and confront the evidence that race has played an unacceptable role in death penalty trials,” Weiss asked.“Or will we throw evidence away without a hearing and send the message that pervasive racial bias doesn’t matter, even in life-and-death trials?”

In 2012, a year before the law was repealed, two law professors from Michigan State University’s College of Law delved into the death row cases in North Carolina over the last two decades. The study found potential Black jurors were more than twice as likely to be dismissed from jury service than jurors of other races.

This was clear in the case of Marcus Robinson, a Black man who was 18 when police charged him with killing Erik Tornblom, a 17-year-old white teen. Robinson was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1994, NPR reported.

Robinson was the first incarcerated person given a chance to prove that race may have played a role in his sentencing when the Racial Justice Act was enacted. Attorneys analyzed the prosecution’s notes from his trial and found that half of the 10 prospective Black jurors were dismissed. However, only 4 of 28 non-Black jurors were dismissed.

Judge Greg Weeks found in 2012 that prospective Black jurors were systematically excluded from Robinson’s trial. In a 168-page opinion, the judge wrote that Robinson’s lawyers proved “the persistent, pervasive, and distorting role of race in jury selection throughout North Carolina.”

Robinson’s sentence was reduced to life in prison without parole. Soon after, North Carolina appealed Robinson’s new sentence. When the Racial Justice Act was repealed in 2013, the now 46-year-old was returned to death row.

Robinson is among those arguing in front of the North Carolina Supreme Court for their lives. Three other incarcerated people will join Robinson’s appeal, all of whom were convicted in Cumberland County and initially won their RJA claims just to be sent back to death row when the law was repealed.

“To finally have the full evidence of discrimination heard, to have a judge find that he is entitled to life without parole because of the intentional discrimination in his case, to be taken off death row, and sent to a new prison to serve what is still an unbelievably harsh sentence, only to then be thrown back on death row without a new trial — it’s unimaginable,” Cassandra Stubbs, Robinson’s attorney and director of the ACLU’s Capital Punishment Project, told The Atlantic.

According to The Atlantic, the four defendants argued on August 26 and 27 that they should not be back on death row since their appeals under the RJA proved that racial bias played a role in their sentencing. Two other defendants appealed to the state’s Supreme Court because their claims were dismissed after the law’s repeal and before they could present evidence to a judge.

The state currently has 142 people on death row, the Associated Press reported. Ninety people on death row (approximately 63 percent) are Black, Native American, or other. The remaining 52 people (about 36 percent) are white. North Carolina’s population is overwhelmingly (71 percent) white.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.