Death row inmate could have sentence overturned

Marcus Robinson (Image courtesy NC Dept. of Correction)

January 31, 2012 3:39:20 PM PST
The state's first Racial Justice Act hearing began Monday in Fayetteville.

The 2009 Racial Justice Act allows death row prisoners the opportunity to argue that race was a key factor in their case.

Attorneys for death row inmate Marcus Robinson tried to argue there was discrimination in the jury selection process for their client.

Attorney James Ferguson's opening statement traced the history of blacks on juries in the state, ending with a 20-year study of prosecutors' use of peremptory challenges in capital cases. He said the study proves Robinson's case under the Racial Justice Act.

Robinson, sentenced to death in Cumberland County for the 1991 death of 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, would like to have his sentence overturned and serve life without parole.

Tornblom was shot in the head with a sawed-off shotgun after giving Robinson a ride home.

Robinson was convicted of the murder in 1994 and sentenced to death, but in the first test of the state's new Racial Justice Act, the judge could change the death sentence to life in prison without parole.

The first witness called to the stand was Dr. Barbara O'Brien, one of the Michigan State law professors whose study of North Carolina capital cases found overwhelming evidence of racial bias in jury selection.

Patricia Tornblom, stepmother to Tornblom, said she is angered by the hearing.

"This is just a sideshow," she said. "I don't think he deserves anything except to die."

In Robinson's case, capable, black jurors were disqualified from serving three and a half times more than whites.

And Michigan State's study concluded racial bias in North Carolina capital cases was widespread.

"What do the people of Michigan have to do with us? I mean this is North Carolina," questioned Tornblom. "Why are they down here trying to decide how we make our laws?"

During Monday's hearing, Tornblom's family quietly protested with buttons reading: Justice is colorblind.

In December, several state prosecutors called on legislators to repeal the Racial Justice Act stating that the law was too broad and only factored in race -- not the circumstances of a case.

The prosecutors said all but five of the state's 157 inmates on death row have filed to have their cases reviewed under the act. Fifty-two are cases where the defendant was white, the victim was white, and the jury was all white.

There are 44 elected district attorneys in North Carolina. Only two are African American. One of those -- the now suspended Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline - did not sign the request to the General Assembly asking for the law to be changed.

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