For the second time, Marcus Reymond Robinson has been taken off death row.
The N.C. Supreme Court ruled on Aug. 14 that Robinson must be removed from death row, citing double jeopardy as a result of the repeal of the state's Racial Justice Act.
The Racial Justice Act was passed in 2009 and stated that in North Carolina no person could be executed by the state based on a trial significantly impacted by the defendant’s race. Robinson was one of 140 inmates who used the act to appeal their death sentences between 2009 and 2013.
He was the first whose sentence was changed from execution to a life sentence without parole, said David Weiss, a lawyer who previously represented Robinson. Following the repeal of the Racial Justice Act in 2013, Robinson’s sentence was changed back to execution until Aug. 14, when the courts ruled that he could not be sentenced to death twice as that would be a violation of double jeopardy.
Theodore Shaw, professor of law and director of the Center for Civil Rights at UNC, said that the act was passed during a progressive era of the North Carolina Legislature. He said it was quickly repealed once the legislature became more conservative, which created uncertainty for the inmates who appealed their cases under the act.
“And then the question was what happened to the people who were granted the relief of being taken off death row because their convictions or death penalties had been polluted by racial discrimination. Could they be put on death row again?” Shaw said.
Cassandra Stubbs, Robinson's lawyer and the Director of the Capital Punishment Project of the ACLU, successfully argued on Friday that putting Robinson back on death row was illegal. Robinson's case provided precedent for three other cases of individuals who were put onto death row twice due to the Racial Justice Act repeal.
The ruling referenced a case in June that said all individuals who appealed their executions based on the racial justice act were owed a day in court regardless of the repeal. These two cases open the door for changes in the sentences of inmates currently on death row.
Weiss said Robinson’s case is just one sign of a much larger systemic problem.
“He had a hearing in 2012, and the superior court judge who heard his evidence was convinced that the evidence was overwhelming and very persuasive," Weiss said. "(The judge) found that there was unacceptable discrimination in his individual case and on a systemic level in North Carolina’s death penalty overall.”
Stubbs also said Robinson’s case and the Racial Justice Act have exposed systemic bias within death penalty cases in North Carolina.
“When you looked just big picture at the statistics the racial bias jumped out at you that so many people in North Carolina on death row were people of color," Stubbs said. "So many people in North Carolina's death row had been sentenced to death by all white or nearly all white juries.”
A Michigan State University investigation into the North Carolina capital punishment process found that of the 159 prisoners on North Carolina’s death row, 31 were sentenced by all white juries and 38 only had one juror of color. Stubbs said she saw Friday’s ruling as an important step towards eliminating injustices in North Carolina.
"I think that this is a major step forward on both our state's path to racial justice and towards healing for Mr. Robinson’s family from the pain caused by this unique journey that took him off death row and somehow put him back on death row in a way that had never been done before," Stubbs said.
Weiss said that he views this ruling as a victory, but he said it is just the beginning of a far longer road ahead.
“I don’t actually think the Racial Justice Act should be a very heavy lift for us," Weiss said. "It says, 'let’s just take this limited first step and make sure we aren’t executing anybody where race is a factor in their cases.' And I think once we get that out of the way then we can ask ourselves: What’s next? What’s left to be done?"
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