The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled today that the State is barred from reimposing a death sentence on Marcus Robinson, who was sentenced to life after proving his death sentence was imposed on the basis of his race.
Mr. Robinson was the first person on North Carolina’s death row to have a hearing under the Racial Justice Act, a law passed in 2009 “to abolish racial discrimination from capital sentencing,” as the court wrote in today’s decision.
Racial Bias in Jury Selection
The RJA contained unique provisions to address the ongoing problem of racial discrimination in jury selection—a problem deeply rooted in our nation’s history of racial inequality.
Today’s decision traces the history of excluding African Americans from juries because of their race—a practice that continued even though the Supreme Court barred it in 1879. As the court explains, “racism and legal segregation remained rampant in North Carolina and across the South,” and in the early 1900s, North Carolina enacted laws that looked race-neutral but worked in practice to exclude Black people from jury service.
The same racially oppressive beliefs that fueled segregation manifested themselves through public lynchings, the disproportionate application of the death penalty against African-American defendants, and the exclusion of African Americans from juries. Given the racially oppressive practices and beliefs that permeated every level of American society during the Jim Crow era, the constitutionally protected right of African-American defendants to be tried by a jury of their peers became increasingly important.
After the Supreme Court struck down these facially neutral laws, more Black people made it into jury pools. Discrimination then shifted from the composition of the jury pool to the makeup of the jury itself. In North Carolina, the court observed, the number of peremptory strikes—challenges that could be used to exclude a potential juror for any reason—increased from six to 14.
The Court ruled in 1986 that peremptory strikes could not be used to exclude jurors on the basis of race in 1986, but racial discrimination in jury selection continued. The North Carolina Supreme Court acknowledged that it “has never held that a prosecutor intentionally discriminated against a juror of color.”
The Racial Justice Act
To finally stamp out racial bias and “ensure that no person in [North Carolina] is put to death because of the color of their skin,” the court wrote, the Racial Justice Act allowed a finding of racial discrimination in jury selection based on statistical evidence, rather than requiring evidence of intentional discrimination.
The first RJA hearing came in Mr. Robinson’s case, and the proceedings revealed pervasive racial bias in capital sentencing in North Carolina. The trial court found that Mr. Robinson successfully proved that racial discrimination infected his trial and sentencing and vacated his death sentence.
The state legislature then amended the RJA to increase the burden of proof, making it harder to prove racial bias. But the next three people met that higher standard and demonstrated that racial bias had infected their capital proceedings as well. More than 100 more people on death row filed RJA claims.
Just as the vast majority of death row inmates were poised to prove their capital proceedings were infected by racial animus, lawmakers repealed the RJA. The repeal was made retroactive: Mr. Robinson and the three other people who had already proven their capital sentences were based on racial bias were returned to death row to await execution.
Mr. Robinson appealed, arguing that once his death sentence was vacated under the RJA, North Carolina’s constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy barred the reinstatement of his capital sentence.
The state supreme court agreed, finding that Mr. Robinson was “acquitted of the death penalty” when he presented evidence that racial discrimination infected his trial and capital sentencing proceedings.
Once the trial court found that Robinson had proven all of the essential
elements under the RJA to bar the imposition of the death penalty, he was acquitted of that capital sentence, jeopardy terminated, and any attempt by the State to reimpose the death penalty would be a violation of our state’s constitution.
The court remanded Mr. Robinson’s case to reinstate a sentence of life imprisonment without parole.
Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the repeal cannot be applied retroactively to people on death row who filed a motion for relief under the original RJA. That means more than 100 people will have the opportunity to present evidence showing that systemic racial bias tainted their sentences.