The Racial Justice Act was passed in August of 2009. As required by the statute, death row inmate Marcus Robinson filed his claim under the Act in August of 2010. Now, two years out from the passage of the RJA and one year after Robinson’s petition, the State says it has not started to prepare its response and needs more time.
If the November hearing moves forward as planned, Judge Weeks will consider only the issue of whether prosecutors in Cumberland County and across the state of North Carolina removed people of color from the jury panel in an unacceptable manner. Another judge in Forsyth County is examining a separate issue related to how the race of the defendant and the race of the victim impact decisions to seek and impose the death penalty.
The Racial Justice Act allows defendants to look beyond the narrow scope of their own cases to identify patterns of behavior over time. In Robinson’s own case, prosecutors were three times more likely to excuse qualified jurors of color than qualified white jurors. This might be viewed as some kind of fluke if it were not also true that qualified black jurors were two and a half times more likely to be excluded from capital juries when every Cumberland County death penalty case is considered. Even looking at every death-sentenced case statewide over the last 20 years, there is still a clear pattern – blacks are eliminated from juries at twice the rate of whites. A sophisticated statistical study has shown that the probability of this disparity occurring in the absence of racial considerations is less than 0.0001.
Cumberland County prosecutors have had this information for a year, and have known it was coming for longer than that. At the hearing, they asked for another six months (at least) to review Robinson’s evidence and come up with some of their own. Some have speculated that the delay is intentional; that prosecutors want to push the hearing back until Judge Weeks retires or the RJA is repealed in the legislature, whichever comes first. To be sure, there are other potential explanations, but the end result is the same: justice, whatever that may be, will have to wait.
Whatever your position on the Racial Justice Act, the death penalty, or Marcus Robinson, I think we can all agree that it is time to take the next step.
Local reporting here and here. ThinkProgress weighs in here.
Note: A “qualified juror” is someone who meets the requirements to serve on a capital jury, which includes a willingness to impose the death penalty. Thus, arguments to the effect that ‘black people just don’t support the death penalty’ do not explain the disparity.