A man sentenced to die for a murder he committed in 1991 has been spared the death penalty by a North Carolina judge who ruled that his trial had been tainted by racial bias.
Marcus Robinson, who is black, was convicted of killing a white teenager, 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, during a robbery, but Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ruled on Friday that prosecutors deliberately excluded black jurors from jury service in Robinson's case. A 2009 law, entitled "North Carolina's Racial Justice Act," paved the way for capital punishment cases to be reconsidered based on evidence presented pertaining to possible racial bias that might have affected the initial decision.
"Race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors" Weeks said of Robinson's trial. He added that the disparity was strong enough "as to support an inference of intentional discrimination," MSNBC reported.
As evidence, the judge presented a study from Michigan State University (MSU) that showed that qualified black jurors were often excluded from jury service throughout the United States. Additionally, it was proven that prosecutors in Robinson's case removed 50 percent of all qualified black jurors from serving on his jury, but removed only 14.8 percent of all other jurors.
"This decision marks a new day for justice in North Carolina where the justice system acknowledges past discrimination and respects the rights of persons of all races to serve on juries," lauded the Center For Death Penalty Litigation, a Durham, N.C.-based nonprofit group that helps represent defendants accused or convicted of capital crimes.
However, some opponents of the law claim that it is simply another step toward banning capital punishment altogether. According to the BBC, state lawyers attempted to prove that the Michigan University study was flawed and argued that black jurors were not excluded because of racial reasons. The presiding judge for Robinson's original trial also testified that the case had not been unbalanced by racial views.
Robinson will instead serve life in prison for his crime, unless an appeal of the decision is successful.
Judge Weeks suggested that there could be many other cases influenced by racial prejudice in the United States, although Robinson's case was the first to be heard under North Carolina's race law.
Kentucky remains the only other state to pass a Racial Justice Act, although its law allows challenges on a pre-trial basis rather than through appeals.
North Carolina is one of 34 states that upholds the death penalty in the United States. It has 157 inmates currently on death row, more than half of whom are black.