A North Carolina judge ruled Friday that racial discrimination played a role in sending a black man to death row for killing a white teenager in 1991, a groundbreaking decision rendered under the state's Racial Justice Act.
Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks said condemned inmate Marcus Robinson should be spared execution and instead serve a life sentence in prison without possibility of parole.
Weeks found that prosecutors deliberately excluded qualified black jurors from jury service in Robinson’s case, and said there was evidence this was happening in courts throughout the state.
Robinson’s case was the first to be heard under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that allows prisoners facing execution and capital murder defendants to present evidence of racial bias, including statistics, in court.
Weeks' ruling is expected to be the first of many involving condemned North Carolina inmates. Those who win their claims can have their sentences converted to life in prison without parole. The Racial Justice Act cannot be used to set anyone free.
"The Racial Justice Act represents a landmark reform in capital sentencing in our state," Weeks said in Fayetteville on Friday, according to The Associated Press. "There are those who disagree with this, but it is the law."
Social justice advocates have long contended that racism has put convicted killers on death row unfairly.
North Carolina has 157 death-row inmates, more than half of whom are black. All but a few have filed to challenge their sentences under the Racial Justice Act. Robinson's case was the first to get a hearing before a judge.
Reading a summary of his ruling from the bench, Weeks said that “race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor in the decision to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection by prosecutors” at the time of Robinson’s trial. The judge added that the disparity was strong enough “as to support an inference of intentional discrimination."
Prosecutors said Friday they planned to appeal Weeks' decision.
Robinson, now 38, was sentenced to death for murdering 17-year-old Erik Torbblom in 1991 during a robbery. Robinson was 18 at the the time of the crime. The jury that sent him to death row him had nine whites, two blacks and one American Indian.
It was later shown that prosecutors removed 50 percent of all qualified black jurors from serving on his jury, but removed only 14.8 percent of all other jurors.
In the Racial Justice Act hearing, Weeks heard testimony from experts who said race was a significant factor in jury selection in North Carolina as prosecutors decided to challenge and eliminate black jurors much more often than whites.
A Michigan State University study of jury selection practices in North Carolina capital cases between 1990 and 2010 was introduced as evidence. The study concluded that prosecutors peremptorily struck black potential jurors at more than twice the rate they struck non-black jurors.
The Center For Death Penalty Litigation, a Durham, N.C.-based nonprofit group that helps represent defendants accused or convicted of capital crimes, praised Weeks’ decision.
“This decision marks a new day for justice in North Carolina where the justice system acknowledges past discrimination and respects the rights of persons of all races to serve on juries,” the group said.
According to the center, 31 inmates on North Carolina’s death row were sentenced to death by all-white juries, and an additional 38 had juries with only one person of color.
"North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act has proven to be a powerful tool for shedding light on discrimination in the death penalty," said Cassandra Stubbs, staff attorney for the ACLU Capital Punishment Project and part of the legal team that represented Robinson during his almost three-week-long Racial Justice Act hearing. "For over 100 years, jury selection in capital cases has been plagued by racial discrimination against qualified African-American citizens. Today’s decision offers promise that change in this area, long overdue, is finally coming.”
The only other state to pass a Racial Justice Act is Kentucky, where the law allows challenges on a pre-trial basis rather than through appeals.
North Carolina, one of 34 states that still have the death penalty, has the nation’s sixth-largest death row, according to the ACLU.
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