Yesterday, North Carolina Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks rendered a decision in the first case challenging a death sentence under the State’s Racial Justice Act. This comes twenty-five years after the United States Supreme Court decided in McCleskey v. Kemp that statistical proof alone is insufficient to state an equal protection violation when discriminatory impact in capital punishment is shown. In the North Carolina case Marcus Robinson was convicted and sentenced to death for the slaying of seventeen-year old Erik Tornblom. Evidence produced at the two-week hearing in the case showed that minorities, particularly African-Americans, were excluded from death-qualified juries at a much higher rate than white venire members. The study, conducted by two law professors at Michigan State University, showed that the statistical likelihood that the strikes were exercised for non-discriminatory purposes was less than one in ten trillion.
North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009, is similar to Kentucky’s which was passed in 1998. North Carolina, however, permits post-conviction relief for prisoners while Kentucky defendants must raise the claim pre-trial in addition to a number of other structural differences. While Kentucky was the first and only state in the nation to have a Racial Justice Act until 2009 so far there have been no successful claims in the Commonwealth. This is despite statistical proof that African-Americans, particularly those accused of killing a white person, are more likely to face death in the Commonwealth.
Contributed by Greg Coulson