FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — Concluding that the racial bias played a significant factor in the sentencing of a man to death here 18 years ago, a judge Friday ordered that the man's sentence be changed to life in prison without parole, the first such decision under North Carolina's controversial Racial Justice Act.
The landmark ruling could be the first of many under the law, which allows defendants and death row inmates to present evidence, including statistics, that race played a major role in their being sentenced to death.
Nearly all of North Carolina's 157 death row inmates have filed claims under the act.
As both the defendant, Marcus Reymond Robinson, and relatives of the man he killed sat motionless and silent, Judge Gregory Weeks of Cumberland Superior Court declared his finding that "race was a materially, practically and statistically significant factor" in the jury selection process not only in Robinson's trial but in trials across the county and state.
Robinson's guilt was not at issue. The judge called his crime — kidnapping 17-year-old Erik Tornblom, shooting him and stealing his car and $27 in his wallet — "unspeakably horrendous."
But a statistical study of racial disparities during jury selection revealed strong enough findings "to support a conclusion of intentional discrimination" at every level, Weeks said in his 167-page ruling.
Prosecutors said they would appeal the decision.
Prosecutors in the state have strongly opposed the act since its passage in 2009, arguing that the law is far too broad, that it would be extremely costly and that it is little more than an indirect moratorium on the death penalty.