The North Carolina State Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the future, and past of the death penalty in the state.
The State Supreme Court heard arguments on Aug. 26 and 27 concerning the fate of six death row inmates. The inmates are asking the Court to spend the rest of their lives in prison without the possibility of parole instead of facing execution.
Four of the inmates, previously granted relief from the death penalty after appealing under the Racial Justice Act (RJA) that their racial bias played a significant factor in their sentencing, have been returned to the queue after Republican lawmakers repealed the act. The other two inmates faced pending cases at the time of the act were also returned to death row.
“Never before has a state done what North Carolina has attempted to do here,” said Cassandra Stubbs, director of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and co-counsel for inmate Marcus Robinson, in a petition written for the court. “Now that the RJA is repealed, the state’s position is to forget all the evidence of racial bias.”
Robinson is one of the inmates who proved that racial bias played a significant role in the prosecution seeking the death penalty in his case.
Robinson, an African-American man, was set to be executed in 2007 when he was convicted of shooting and killing Erik Tornblom, who was white. Robinson was 18 at the time. Robinson was able to show how the prosecution in his state discriminated again potential Black jurors, and uncovered a statewide problem.
The prosecutor in Robinson’s case struck Black prospective jurors three times more often than other prospective jurors, while prosecutors across the state used “peremptory” challenges, challenges where a prosecutor can strike a juror without having to give a reason, to strike more than half the Black potential jurors called in North Carolina capital cases in a twenty-year period.
Robinson’s case showed that racial bias was still rampant among North Carolina prosecutions.
As a result of a larger effort to end racial bias in jury selection, a Democratic-majority legislature passed the RJA in 2009. About 90 percent of death row inmates at the time applied for mitigated sentences under the law. When a Republican-majority legislature repealed the RJA, the pending cases were voided.
The State Supreme Court must decide if Robinson and the three others freed from death row were properly sentenced to death after the repeal.
Stubbs argues that the, “unchecked systematic racism,” as she was quoted in the NC Policy Watch, and subsequent resentencing amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, a standard set forth in the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.
“The legislature had seen all of the findings,” she said to the high court regarding the widespread racial bias found in the state. “They were aware of the record, and they turned their back on the record. The legislature cannot target and engage in this type of discrimination.”
It is unclear when the Court will issue a ruling on the case.