North Carolina judge vacates death penalty under racial justice law

Convicted murderer Marcus Reymond Robinson has his sentence changed to life without parole in a blistering ruling that accuses state prosecutors of systematic discrimination.

North Carolina judge vacates death penaltyShirley Burns, center, hugs her friendy after Cumberland County Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks found that racial bias played a role in the trial and death row sentencing of Burns’ son inmate Marcus Robinson. (Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT / April 21, 2012)
By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times11:10 a.m. CDT, April 21, 2012

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — In a landmark ruling, a North Carolina judge on Friday vacated the death penalty of a black man convicted of murder, saying prosecutors across the state had engaged in deliberate and systematic racial discrimination when striking black potential jurors in death penalty cases.

The ruling was the first under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, which allows judges to reduce death sentences to life in prison without parole when defendants can prove racial bias in jury selection. Prosecutors had fought the act, the nation’s only such law, calling it a back-door attempt to overturn the death penalty.

The decision by Superior Court Judge Gregory A. Weeks in Cumberland County, N.C., could have an effect on death penalty cases nationwide; for years, such cases have included arguments by black defendants and civil rights lawyers that prosecutors keep blacks off juries for racial reasons.