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State Tries to Remove African American Judge From Racial Justice Act Case

November 10, 2011

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - Just days before the first hearing under the Racial Justice Act (RJA) is scheduled to take place, the state has filed a motion to have the African-American judge in the case recuse himself (withdraw) from the hearing. Cumberland County prosecutors claim Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks may be needed to testify as a witness on their behalf.

The RJA, passed in 2009, allows death-row inmates to have their sentences converted to life in prison if they can prove race was a significant factor in their sentencing.

Dr. James Coleman is a professor of law at Duke University who is critical of the state's move.

"The state is using a flimsy ground to try to get him to recuse himself. If they are successful, what will that say to African-Americans?"

The state's first RJA hearing, scheduled for Nov. 14, involves 20-year death row inmate Marcus Robinson. Weeks was assigned Robinson's case because of his rank as the senior resident judge in Cumberland County. He has served on the bench for 23 years.

According to a recent study of North Carolina by Michigan State University, qualified black jurors are 2.4 times more likely to be removed from a juror panel than other qualified jurors. During Robinson's trial, prosecutors chose to remove half of all qualified black jurors, compared to only 15 percent of all other jurors.

With the state arguing that race was not a factor in Robinson's sentencing, Coleman says that study finding forces the state to explain what happened in another way.

"What's the explanation for the disparities, if it's not race? That's the case that the state has to make now."

Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - NC