2017-06-05 11:39:20 UTC
Imagine Being Pulled Off death row and Then Being Put Back on It----That's what
happened after North Carolina repealed the Racial Justice Act.
In 1994, Marcus Robinson, who is black, was convicted of murder and sentenced
to death for the 1991 killing of Erik Tornblom, a white teenager, in Cumberland
County, North Carolina. He spent nearly 20 years on death row, but in 2012 his
sentence was changed to life without a chance of parole. He was 1 of 4 death
row inmates whose sentences were commuted by a judge who found that racial
discrimination had played a role in their trials.
The reason their cases were reviewed at all was because of a 2009 North
Carolina law known as the Racial Justice Act, which allowed judges to reduce
death sentences to life in prison without parole when defendants were able to
prove racial bias in their charge, jury selection, or sentence.
"The Racial Justice Act ensures that when North Carolina hands down our state's
harshest punishment to our most heinous criminals," former Gov. Bev Perdue said
when she signed the bill into law, "the decision is based on the facts and the
law, not racial prejudice."
At 21, Robinson was the youngest person sentenced to death in North Carolina.
When he was three, he was hospitalized with severe seizures after being
physically abused by his father and was diagnosed with permanent brain
dysfunction. However, those weren't the only troubling aspects of his case.
"We continue to believe the Racial Justice Act is an ill-conceived law that has
very little to do with race and absolutely nothing to do with justice."
Racial discrimination in jury selection has been prohibited since it was banned
by the Supreme Court in its 1986 Supreme Court decision Batson v. Kentucky, but
Robinson's trial was infected with it. The prosecutor in the case, John
Dickson, disproportionately refused eligible black potential jurors. For
example, he struck 1 black potential juror because the man had been once
charged with public drunkenness. However, he accepted 2 "nonblack" people with
DWI convictions. Of the eligible members of the pool, he struck 1/2 the black
people and only 14 % of the nonblack members. In the end, Robinson was tried by
a 12-person jury that included only 3 people of color - 1 Native American
individual and 2 black people.
Racial discrimination in jury selection was not uncommon in the North Carolina
criminal justice system. A comprehensive Michigan State University study looked
at more than 7,400 potential jurors in 173 cases from 1990 to 2010. Researchers
found that statewide prosecutors struck 52.6 % of eligible potential black
jurors and only 25.7 % of all other potential jurors. This bias was reflected
on death row. Of the 147 people on North Carolina's death row, 35 inmates were
sentenced by all-white juries; 38 by juries with just 1 black member.
Under the Racial Justice Act, death row inmates had one year from when the bill
became law to file a motion. Nearly all the state's 145 death row inmates filed
claims, but only Robison and three others???Quintel Augustine, Tilmon Golphin,
and Christina Walters - obtained hearings. In 2012, Robinson's was the first.
At the Superior Court of Cumberland County, Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that race
had played a significant role in the trial and Robinson was resentenced to life
without parole. North Carolina appealed the decision to the state's Supreme
An immediate outcry followed the decision. The North Carolina Conference of
District Attorneys issued a statement saying, "Capital cases reflect the most
brutal and heinous offenders in our society. Whether the death penalty is an
appropriate sentence for murderers should be addressed by our lawmakers in the
General Assembly, not masked as claims (of) racism in our courts."
The ruling attracted lots of publicity from across the country and North
Carolina lawmakers were outraged. "There are definitely signs in the
legislative record that there were some [lawmakers] that really wanted to see
executions move forward," Cassandra Stubbs, the director of the ACLU Capital
Punishment Project who also represents Robinson, says. Legislative staffers
circulated talking points for lawmakers with arguments that the RJA turns
"district attorneys into racists and convicted murderers into victims,"
describing the law as "an end-run around the death penalty and an indefinite
moratorium on capital punishment."
The day Judge Weeks resentenced Robinson, the Senate president pro tempore for
the state Legislature, Phillip Berger, expressed concern that Robinson could be
eligible for parole. He suggested Robinson - who had just turned 18 when he
committed the crime and would not have been considered a juvenile - would be
ineligible for life in prison without a chance of parole, citing a US Supreme
Court ruling that prohibited juveniles from receiving life sentences without
parole. "We cannot allow cold-blooded killers to be released into our
community, and I expect the state to appeal this decision," he said.
"Regardless of the outcome, we continue to believe the Racial Justice Act is an
ill-conceived law that has very little to do with race and absolutely nothing
to do with justice."
The state Legislature took on the challenge and voted to repeal the Racial
Justice Act in 2013. This made it impossible for those on death row to even
attempt to have their sentences reviewed for racial bias, but it left the fates
of the four who had been moved to life imprisonment unclear. "The state's
district attorneys are nearly unanimous in their bipartisan conclusion that the
Racial Justice Act created a judicial loophole to avoid the death penalty and
not a path to justice," Gov. Pat McCrory said in a statement at the time.
Even though the law was still in effect when the 4 inmates' sentences were
reduced, they weren't safe from death row just yet. Robinson's sentenced had
been legally reduced, but the legal battle was just beginning.
In 2015, after nearly 2 years from the initial hearing, the North Carolina
Supreme Court ordered the Superior Court to reconsider the reduced sentences
for Robinson, Augustine, Golphin, and Walters, saying the judge failed to give
the state enough time to prepare for the "complex" proceedings.
This past January, Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour ruled that because the
RJA had been repealed, the four defendants could no longer use the law to
reduce their sentences. "North Carolina vowed to undertake an unprecedented
look at the role of racial bias in capital sentencing," says Stubbs. But now,
"the state Legislature explicitly turned from its commitment and repealed the
Robinson is back on death row at Central Prison in the state's capital of
Raleigh. In the petition to the state Supreme Court, Robinson's lawyers point
out that the Double Jeopardy Clause - the law that prevents someone from being
tried twice for the same crime - bars North Carolina from trying to reimpose
the death penalty because the 2012 RJA hearing acquitted him of capital
"He's never been resentenced to death," Stubbs says. "They have no basis to
hold him on death row."
State high court ruling on death penalty could restart executions
The California Supreme Court hears many high-stakes cases on issues such as
individual rights, taxes, and the lawmaking powers of the state and its voters.
But it has seldom confronted a case with such potentially dramatic consequences
as Tuesday's hearing on the Proposition 66 death-penalty initiative.
If the court - traditionally deferential to the will of the voters - upholds
the central provisions of Prop. 66, it will open the door to the resumption of
executions in a state that last put a prisoner to death in January 2006. Nearly
750 condemned inmates inhabit the nation???s largest death row, and about 20
have run out of appeals to their conviction and sentence.
Prop. 66 also seeks to speed up future executions, in part by requiring the
state's high court to decide all death-penalty appeals within 5 years of
sentencing - more than twice its current pace. If the court upholds that
requirement, one of the most hotly contested in the case, it may have to
reconfigure itself as a tribunal that gives priority to capital cases over all
other types of criminal and civil law disputes in the nation's most populous
The justices could reject the deadlines while upholding other Prop. 66
provisions aimed at shortening the death-penalty process, such as limiting
prisoners' appeals and requiring more lawyers to accept capital cases. But
opponents say the proposed timetables for court action are the heart of an
initiative that seeks to hamstring judicial authority over state law.
Neither lawmakers nor voters can "force the courts to prioritize a certain type
of case at the expense of all other types of cases," said Christina Von der Ahe
Rayburn, a lawyer in the suit to overturn Prop. 66. The requirement to move
death cases to the front of the line, she said, would "impair the court's
inherent function of giving fair and equal treatment to (all) litigants."
Not so, said Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal
Foundation and an author of Prop. 66. He said the measure would actually
relieve the state Supreme Court of some of its current death-penalty workload
by transferring some hearings to trial courts. It sets a 5-year deadline that
he says the court could meet if it eliminated needless delays.
"If our side wins, we can get back to having a death penalty that actually
works and really see some executions being carried out," probably before the
end of this year, said Scheidegger, who will argue in defense of the measure
along with Attorney General Xavier Becerra???s office at the hearing in Los
Rayburn said an unrelated federal court case would probably delay any
executions in California by at least six months, even if Prop. 66 were upheld.
If the court overturns most or all of the initiative, executions will remain on
hold for a year or longer as challenges to proposed new lethal-injection
procedures work their way through state and federal courts.
A ruling is due within 3 months.
Prop. 66 passed with 51 % of the vote on the same November ballot in which a
rival measure to repeal the death penalty in California was rejected by about 7
% points, nearly twice the margin of defeat for a similar measure in 2012.
While the votes were close, the message seemed clear: Californians want the
death-penalty law enforced.
But the far-reaching provisions of Prop. 66, which received little attention
during the campaign, have evidently raised concerns among the justices, who put
the measure on hold while they consider a lawsuit seeking to overturn it. The
suit was filed by the late John Van de Kamp, a former state attorney general,
and Ron Briggs, a former El Dorado County supervisor whose father, the former
Southern California state Sen. John Briggs, sponsored a 1978 initiative that
established the current death-penalty law.
Even before a federal judge halted California executions in 2006 by citing
flaws in injection procedures, equipment and staff training, death-penalty
appeals in the state were taking 20 years or more.
About 1/2 that time is typically spent in the federal courts, which consider
constitutional objections to state death verdicts and are beyond the reach of
state initiatives. But some of the delay is due to heavy state court workloads
and a shortage of qualified lawyers who are willing to take the cases.
In addition to imposing a deadline on the time the state Supreme Court takes to
review a death row inmate's appeal, Prop. 66 would apply the same 5-year limit
to state courts' review of the 2nd-stage appeals known as habeas corpus. Those
usually involve such post-trial claims as incompetent legal representation and
misconduct by the prosecutor or jurors, and have often been the basis for
federal court rulings overturning California death sentences.
The initiative doesn't say what would happen if the courts missed their
Habeas corpus challenges are now filed directly with the state Supreme Court,
but Prop. 66 would redirect them to the Superior Court judge who conducted the
trial, and would shorten the filing deadline from 3 years to 1 year.
Scheidegger said the change would free the state's high court to concentrate on
appeals and handle them more quickly. But Rayburn said Prop. 66, while
providing no additional court funding, would simply shift more work to already
overburdened Superior Courts in the handful of counties - Los Angeles, Orange,
San Bernardino and Riverside - that issue most of the state's death sentences.
She also argued - though Scheidegger disagreed - that the state Constitution
requires all death-penalty appeals, including habeas corpus cases, to be filed
directly with the state Supreme Court.
Another provision of the measure seeks to expand the pool of defense lawyers by
requiring attorneys to take capital cases if they already accept court
appointments to represent defendants in other criminal cases.
Supporters say the change would ease the shortage of available lawyers, 1 of
the chief reasons appeals take so long. Opponents say it would put condemned
inmates' fates in the hands of unqualified lawyers and prompt many lawyers to
refuse future assignments.
Prop. 66 would also speed up the state's switch from 3-drug executions, in use
from 1996 to 2006, to lethal injections of a single barbiturate.
Gov. Jerry Brown's administration proposed procedures for 1-drug executions
last year in settlement of a lawsuit by relatives of murder victims. Prison
officials are still reviewing those procedures under a long-standing law that
requires them to consider public comments. The commenters have included
organizations that say the proposed drugs are untested in executions and the
procedures are unreliable.
Prop. 66 would allow the state to enact the 1-drug procedures without
considering public comment, though opponents could still object in court.
2 of the court's 7 justices, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Ming
Chin, have removed themselves from the case because they are members of the
state's Judicial Council, a defendant in the lawsuit by Van de Kamp and Briggs.
Their replacements are 2 randomly selected appeals court justices, Andrea Hoch
of the Sacramento court, an appointee of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and
Raymond Ikola, appointed to the court in Santa Ana by Gov. Gray Davis.
The case is Briggs vs. Brown, S238309.
(source: San Francisco Chronicle)
A service courtesy of Washburn University School of Law www.washburnlaw.edu
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