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The practice of capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is one of the most-heavily contended social issues in America and abroad.  There have been many cases involving African Americans that question the racial fairness of the death penalty; most recently, the execution of inmate Troy Davis inspired similar debate.  A report from The Daily Beast spotlights a ruling by a North Carolina judge who used a state law last Friday (April 20) to minimize a death-row inmate’s sentence to life in prison because of racism from the prosecution.

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Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks decided that the case of convicted killer Marcus Robinson (pictured below) was distorted by race and that state prosecutors were deliberately tougher on Black cases. Invoking the 2009 Racial Justice Act to form his decision, Judge Week’s bold move in the face of scrutiny has made racism involving capital punishment a hot-button issue again.  While Robinson’s crime is deserving of a stiff penalty, it shows that the judicial system is recognizing that the law has some flaws.

Robinson and his co-defendant Roderick Williams Jr. were both charged with killing 17-year old Erik Tornblom in 1991. The pair robbed Tornblom of his car, stole a small amount of cash and killed the teenager with a shotgun blast.  Convicted in 1994, Robinson landed on Death Row and was nearly executed in 2007, but a judge put a stop to it. Williams is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the crime.  At the center of the race debate, a 25-year Supreme Court decision cemented the ugly reality that Black defendants face more racial scrutiny than their White counterparts.

The case of McCleskey v. Kemp became a part of the conversation again, marking an ugly period where the law turned a blind eye to racist practices. After hearing of the racial biases and discrimination Blacks face in court and abroad, the justices voted 5-4 against the charge and said that even with the evidence and statistics saying otherwise, racism does not play a role in how cases are handled.

Ironically, two southern states (the other being Kentucky) that are infamous for their treatment of African Americans have sought to overturn the McCleskey v. Kemp decision and further data supports the idea that Blacks are subject to the very racism the decades-old case alleged. A study from a pair of Michigan State law professors showed that Black jurors were blocked twice more than White jurors, who also helped Judge Weeks form his decision. The study essentially found that the evidence showed an “inference of intentional discrimination.”

Republicans in North Carolina are seeking to eliminate the Racial Justice Act, although 150 cases are pending to be heard by a judge. The inmates will have to present evidence to support claims of racism, and it will undoubtedly become a heated debate for months to come. However, as Marcus Robinson’s mother, Shirley Burns, said, “”Everybody is not guilty, everybody is not innocent, but at least be fair. It wasn’t all about Marcus. It’s about anyone who suffers discrimination.”


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