Thursday, February 09, 2012

NC Racial Justice Act (RJA) is getting attention worldwide

Here's one of the latest -- Published: 01:51 AM, Wed Feb 08, 2012
by Fayetteville Observer

Ruling blocks judge's answer in Racial Justice Act hearing

Paul Woolverton of Retired Superior Court Judge E. Lynn Johnson, who presided over the 1994 trial of Racial Justice Act claimant Marcus Reymond Robinson, testified Tuesday afternoon at Robinson's Racial Justice Act hearing at the Cumberland County Courthouse.

Staff writer
Retired Superior Court Judge E. Lynn Johnson, who presided over Marcus Reymond Robinson's 1994 murder trial, was repeatedly blocked on Tuesday afternoon at Robinson's Racial Justice Act hearing from testifying on whether he observed racism in the trial.

In a related issue, lawyers for the news media on Tuesday morning argued successfully to prevent the courtroom from being closed to the public during Johnson's testimony.

Robinson's is the first racism claim to be considered before a judge under the controversial Racial Justice Act of 2009, a law that provides death row inmates a mechanism to have their sentences converted to life without parole. His case is expected to set precedent on how more than 150 other Racial Justice Act claims will be handled.

Robinson, who is black, was convicted of killing Erik Tornblom, who is white, during a 1991 robbery. He asserts that prosecutor John Dickson illegally prevented black potential jurors from serving on his jury, which had nine whites, two blacks and one American Indian.

Further, Robinson's lawyers have a study of 173 of North Carolina's capital trials that suggests a pattern of racial discrimination against blacks in the selection of jurors throughout the state.

Prosecutors Cal Colyer and Rob Thompson argued that Johnson was in a key position to say whether there was racism in the selection of the Robinson jury. They contend Dickson had legitimate, nonracial reasons when he used peremptory challenges to dismiss some jurors who happened to be black, and wanted Johnson to say so.

"Sir, based upon your observations as the trial judge, was race a significant factor in the state's peremptory strikes against black jurors in the case of the state of North Carolina vs. Marcus Robinson?" Colyer asked Johnson.

Robinson's lawyers objected to the question; Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks sustained the objection. Colyer then objected and announced he took exception to the ruling, and Weeks noted it for the record.

The lawyers and judge repeated the litany dozens of times through the afternoon on various details of Robinson's and another capital murder trial.

Robinson lawyers Malcolm "Tye" Hunter and James Ferguson II didn't want Johnson on the stand in the first place. Citing law on judges' conduct, rules for conducting court and prior court rulings, they said neither Johnson nor approximately six other judges who have been subpoenaed should be allowed to testify.

Judges are normally precluded from publicly discussing their decision-making and opinions outside of the proceedings they preside over, Hunter argued. And he said the trial transcripts and other court documents serve as the official record of what happened, not any statement that a judge might make now.

They suggested that Weeks could take written statements on the judges' thoughts and seal them or allow their testimony, but close the courtroom to the public. This would allow Colyer and Thompson to get the judges' testimony into the record for review by an appeals court even if Weeks determined it would be inappropriate to consider their testimony when deciding whether their was racism in the Robinson murder trial.

Thompson initially opposed the idea of secret testimony, but Colyer later reluctantly agreed to it.

Reporters for The Fayetteville Observer and WTVD ABC11 objected to the proposal to close the courtroom to the public and summoned their lawyers.

"There are very few issues currently in this state that are in greater interest, that there is greater interest, and greater public interest and you hear greater comment on and discussion, than the Racial Justice Act," said lawyer Gerald Beaver for The Fayetteville Observer. He noted that the General Assembly recently attempted to repeal it and was blocked by the governor's veto. "It is a matter of vital public interest," Beaver said.

The issue is of extraordinarily high public concern, argued lawyer Amanda Martin for WTVD. At question is not only the Robinson case, "but the very integrity of the North Carolina judicial system and the way our courts operate," she said, so it is necessary for the public to know the judges' testimony.

Weeks decided to hear the judges' testimony, allow Robinson's lawyers to object to many of the questions, and to allow the prosecutors to later submit written copies of the judges' answers to the blocked questions. Those written answers will be part of the public record.

Staff writer Paul Woolverton can be reached at or 910-486-3512.

The RJA is also getting attention by the BBC. See post below and follow Rick Halperins Death Penalty News & Updates. See easy links lower right column on this site for Dr. Rick's (the most often current) and many more.)

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