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An Issue of Color – Black and White and Red and Brown

Submitted by MVFR on Tue, 11/13/2012 - 16:27

Shirley Burns after the first Racial Justice Act Ruling

As a mother of 10-year-old twins, I know and understand the simple joys of motherhood – watching the determination of first steps, experiencing the excitement before a school play, and seeing the care given to a handmade Mother’s Day card are all joys I’ve experienced.

On April 20, 2012 Mother’s Day came early for MVFR member Shirley Burns - and the simple pleasure she was looking forward to was not a performance or a handmade card but to see her son, Marcus Robinson, wearing a brown jumpsuit instead of a red jumpsuit.  You see North Carolina death row inmates wear red while “lifers” wear brown.  Beaming, Shirley shared her anticipation of this imminent dream-come-true moment with MVFR’s executive director, Scott Bass, and me minutes after Marcus’ sentence was commuted from death to life in prison without parole.

Marcus’ sentence was commuted to life without parole as a result of Superior Court Judge, Gregory Weeks’, extensive and eloquent ruling in the first North Carolina Racial Justice Act hearing.  After weighing much expert testimony presented by both the State and defense, Judge Weeks found that the evidence supported not only the presence of racial bias in capital cases in Cumberland County during the time of Marcus Robinson’s trial but also across the state over the course of 20 years.

The groundbreaking Racial Justice Act came into law in North Carolina in 2009 to ensure that all lives, on all sides of a murder trial, would be valued equally.  This law allows a judge to change a death sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole if racial bias is proven to have been a significant factor influencing the decision for the death sentence.  Judge Weeks used words like “persistent” and “pervasive” and “intentional” to describe the racially biased practices of North Carolina District Attorneys in jury selection.  In the process, Judge Weeks found the statistical data of bias demonstrated by a Michigan State study to be “highly reliable.”  While this case was about racial bias in jury selection, research has also shown the victim’s race can greatly impact the DA’s decision to pursue a death penalty in the first place.

Judge Weeks is without a doubt one of the most eloquent speakers I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.  As a victims’ advocate and staff member of MVFR, I particularly appreciated the grace Weeks demonstrated when addressing the family of the victim, Erik Tornblom.  His ruling was book-ended with condolences for Erik’s family and assurances that the conviction was not in question - that the man convicted of murdering their son would not suddenly be walking the streets.  That said, the man convicted of murdering their son shouldn't be on death row because of his race or that of the members of his jury.

As Judge Weeks said, “The very integrity of the court is jeopardized when a prosecutor’s discrimination invites cynicism respecting the jury’s neutrality and undermines public confidence.”
A court without integrity does not serve victims.

A justice system that is unfair - that contains such blatant bias, that does not value all lives as equal - does not serve victims, citizens, or society.

I don’t pretend to fully comprehend the bittersweet joy Shirley felt when she heard the judge resentence her son from death to life.  I pray I’ll never have an opportunity to experience that not so simple pleasure.  However, I am grateful to have been in that Cumberland County court room on that day to see an injustice corrected, to see history being made, and to see the joy on Shirley’s face when she told me Marcus would be wearing brown during her next visit.

By Marcelle Clowes