North Carolina v. Robinson

Date Filed: 07/16/2018

North Carolina v. Robinson was a pivotal death penalty case centered on North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act. Mr. Robinson was the first individual on North Carolina’s death row to pursue a claim under the Racial Justice Act (RJA) and he successfully proved that racial discrimination infected his trial and sentencing. Lawyers presented evidence that prosecutors used peremptory strikes to remove Black jurors. In April 2012, a North Carolina judge found statistical evidence of racial bias in the death penalty, and based on that finding commuted the death sentence of Marcus Robinson to life without parole. 

Passed in 2009, the RJA prohibited seeking or imposing the death penalty on the basis of race. The law enabled individuals previously sentenced to death to challenge death sentences if race played a significant role in the decision to seek or impose the death penalty, including decisions to exercise peremptory challenges during jury selection. The RJA was developed to address the problems of racial discrimination in North Carolina’s death penalty system in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s repeated failures to remedy racial disparities within the criminal justice system in the years since its notorious 1987 ruling in McCleskey v. Kemp, another LDF case. North Carolina has a well-documented history of excluding Black citizens from jury service in state courts and racial discrimination in sentencing.

In 2013, the North Carolina legislature repealed the RJA and attempted to make that repeal retroactive and reinstate Mr. Robinson’s death sentence, even though he had previously established his death sentence was based on racially biased proceedings. 

In a 2018 amicus brief filed on behalf of three capital defendants, LDF asked the North Carolina Supreme Court to grant relief, such as a new sentence or an opportunity to challenge claims of racial bias, to defendants whose death sentences were tainted by race discrimination in jury selection. LDF argued that the court could not ignore the blatant statistical evidence of racial discrimination in the selection of juries in these cases — and emphasized that failure to grant relief would amount to the court condoning racial bias in the administration of justice, including the imposition of death sentences.

On August 14, 2020, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a decision in State v. Robinson, ruling that Marcus Robinson, a Black man sentenced to death in 1994, must have his life sentence reinstated. The court held that retroactively applying the Racial Justice Act (RJA) repeal is a violation of the North Carolina State Constitution’s double jeopardy provision. Mr. Robinson successfully challenged his death sentence under North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act (RJA) with substantial claims that race was a significant factor during the selection of his capital jury. The decision means that Mr. Robinson will never again face the threat of having his death sentence re-instated because the North Carolina Supreme Court, as the highest court in North Carolina, is the final arbiter of state constitutional claims.