Victory: Landmark Ruling Under Racial Justice Act

This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the McCleskey v. Kemp 1987 Supreme Court decision that kept criminal justice laws and practices from being challenged on the basis of racial discrimination. Since then, we’ve witnessed increasing racial disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system, including who is sent to death row. Today, April 20, 2012, marks the day that the tide begins to turn to a new sense of fairness, and an acknowledgement that race matters, and that it has heavily influenced our system of justice.

This morning, Judge Gregory A. Weeks of Cumberland County Superior Court in North Carolina made the first decision under the state’s Racial Justice Act, ruling that racial bias was a significant factor in the prosecution’s use of peremptory strikes in Marcus Reymond Robinson’s trial 18 years ago. He ordered that Robinson’s death sentence be reduced to life in prison without parole.

North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act in 2009, allowing inmates to present evidence, including statistical data, that shows that race influenced their death sentences. During Robinson’s hearing, defense attorneys cited findings from a Michigan State University study that reveled that prosecutors used peremptory challenges to remove black individuals from juries more than twice the rate that they used such challenges to exclude white jurors. This week a new study also came out from Duke University demonstrating the greater likelihood of all-white juries to convict defendants of color.

The state said they will appeal today’s decision. Many more cases are expected to be heard under the Racial Justice Act. We applaud Judge Weeks for this ruling that acknowledges the continuing role race plays in our justice system in determining who lives and who dies. Congratulations to everyone in North Carolina who has worked so hard over the years to make today’s victory a reality! Here’s to many more favorable rulings!

(Photo: Shirley Burns hugs her friend Margaret Tinsley after Judge Greg Weeks overturned her son’s death sentence, ruling that racial bias played a role in his trial and sentencing. By: Shawn Rocco)

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