A North Carolina judge on Friday commuted [order text, PDF] a man's death sentence to a sentence of life in prison without parole after he determined that racial bias was a major influence behind the original sentence 18 years ago. Judge Gregory Weeks vacated Marcus Reymond Robinson's death sentence after he determined that race was a significant factor in choosing members of the jury for Robinson's trial. Under the state's Racial Justice Act [PDF], individuals who have received a death sentence now may present evidence showing that racial bias was a major factor in the death sentence being applied. In his order, Weeks found that "[t]he prosecutor intentionally used the race of venire members as a significant factor in his decisions to exercise peremptory strikes in Robinson's capital trial." The order marks first decision to change a sentence under the Act.
The decision to transform Robinson's death sentence because of racial bias is expected to have a great impact on capital punishment discussions nationwide. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] on Friday released a statement [text] expressing its approval of the North Carolina decision. In its statement, the ACLU expressed hope that the United States is moving in a direction towards abolishing the death penalty. The statement also notes the significance of Weeks' decision coming almost exactly 25 years after the Supreme Court ruled that "evidence of systemic bias is not sufficient to challenge a death sentence" in the case of McCleskey v. Kemp [opinion text].