Racial study scrutinized in death row inmate's hearing

Marcus Robinson (Image courtesy NC Dept. of Correction)

January 31, 2012 3:59:52 PM PST
Tuesday, the second day of the state's first Racial Justice Act hearing, found a Michigan State researcher defending her findings to prosecutors who are fighting to keep Marcus Robinson on death row.

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

Before a Fayetteville courtroom, Dr. Barbara O'Brien said her study shows the prosecutor in Robinson's murder trial illegally used race to disqualify eligible black jurors. Her study of North Carolina capital cases found overwhelming evidence of racial bias in jury selection.

Robinson's attorneys are using the study to argue there was discrimination in the jury selection process for their client.

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

Robinson's mother, Shirley Burns, attended the hearing and took notes.

"I'm not looking for vengeance," she said. "I'm looking for the truth. Statistics don't lie, the numbers are there, and we can talk, but the numbers tell the bottom line."

Robinson, sentenced to death in Cumberland County for the 1991 murder 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 from a convenience store.

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.

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

"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?"

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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