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First Hearing Under Racial Justice Act Begins Today

January 30, 2012

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. - The first hearing under the state's Racial Justice Act is to begin today in a Fayetteville courtroom.

The act allows North Carolina inmates sentenced to death to argue that race was a factor in their sentencing, and to convert their sentences to life in prison.

Today's hearing involves Marcus Robinson, sentenced to death for the 1991 murder of Erik Tornblom. Robinson's attorneys say prosecutors at the time disqualified a disproportionate number of black jurors.

Ken Rose, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, says the act establishes North Carolina as a leader in racial justice.

"It's to the credit of the state of North Carolina that we're willing to take a very open, searching look at potential race discrimination against African-Americans."

The Racial Justice Act was initiated after a number of nonpartisan studies found that race has been a factor in sentencing North Carolina inmates to Death Row. If Robinson's attorneys are successful, his sentence would be converted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In Robinson's case, prosecutors struck African-American jurors at 3 1/2 times the rate of other jurors. Rose explains why equality in jury selection is important.

"It's only fair that all the segments of our population have an opportunity to serve on juries and that defendants have an opportunity to have jurors from all backgrounds."

There are 158 people on Death Row in North Carolina, 31 of whom were sentenced by all-white juries.

The Robinson hearing is expected to last about two weeks, and begins weeks after opponents of the Racial Justice Act made one more attempt to override the governor's veto of a bill that sought to overturn the new law.

Stephanie Carroll Carson, Public News Service - NC