Remembering Marcus Robinson, who helped expose death penalty racism

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Marcus Robinson at his Racial Justice Act hearing in 2012 Photo: CDPL

Last month, Marcus Robinson was found dead in his cell at Scotland Correctional Institution. The prison ruled it a suicide. He was 49 and had spent his entire adult life, as well as a good chunk of his childhood, in prison. His death didn’t make the news. But for those who worked on Marcus’ case for decades, it was a tragic reminder of our criminal punishment system’s failure to create even a semblance of justice.

Marcus grew up with many loving relatives and a strong, supportive mother, but an abusive father inflicted trauma from a young age. Yet, a racist system treated him like an incorrigible monster rather than a child in need of healing. He ended up in juvenile prison, a cruel system reserved almost exclusively for Black children, which makes people more likely to be incarcerated as adults.

Marcus was barely 18 years old when he played a role in a robbery that left 17-year-old Erik Tornblom dead. At his 1994 trial for Tornblom’s murder, Marcus was portrayed as a cold-blooded Black man on the hunt for a white victim. Prosecutors intentionally removed Black jurors who might have been more likely to see Marcus as human. Marcus soon became the youngest person on death row, and a new cycle of trauma began.

In 2007, Marcus was 12 hours away from execution before litigation over the state’s lethal injection protocol led to a stay. He’d already had his veins examined in preparation for the fatal injection, and already said goodbye to his family in what he thought was their final visit.

A few years later, Marcus’ case became the first to be tried under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act. In 2012, Judge Gregory Weeks ruled that prosecutors intentionally and systematically removed Black citizens from Marcus’ jury. Judge Weeks said Marcus had also proven that such discrimination was happening in capital cases across North Carolina.

It was a historic victory that brought to light decades of racism in death penalty trials, and Marcus was resentenced to life without parole. But even that victory was snatched away when the N.C. Supreme Court overturned it on a technicality and sent Marcus back to death row. Marcus and his legal team had to fight until 2020 to finally get his life sentence restored.

Attorney David Weiss remembers going to the prison to tell Marcus the news that he would never be executed: “Marcus said he was excited, grateful, thankful, and elated. He rattled off this string of adjectives. In retrospect, I wonder how happy he really was to be serving a life without parole sentence, whether he was saying that more for our benefit. Life in prison was really hard for Marcus.”

At his funeral, his mother, the Rev. Shirley Burns, sang a beautiful hymn. She had also sung it at the funerals of her two other sons. One of them was murdered in 2006 and police never solved the crime. Friends and family talked about a side of Marcus that never made the headlines. He was one of several talented singers in his family. He was loyal and protective, mischievous and funny.

We’d like to imagine a different life for Marcus, one where he wasn’t born into a racist society that too often sees Black children’s lives as disposable. One where he was shown kindness and compassion as a child, rather than imprisoned.

“Marcus was smart, witty, and sarcastic,” Weiss remembers. “He liked to cross-examine me about his case, or about a current event. He’d ask me hard questions until he felt like he caught me in a contradiction or an awkward moment. Then he’d flash that wide smile and start laughing. Not at all in a mean-spirited way. I think he enjoyed debating and questioning. Maybe in another life he’d have been a lawyer.”

Read Marcus’ obituary here. Donate to help his family with funeral expenses here.

Kristin Collins is the Director of Public Information for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which first published this essay.

First NC death sentence since 2019 is a reminder: Even without executions, the machinery of death cranks on

The death chamber at North Carolina’s Central Prison has gone unused for several years, but the state continues to maintain a large and growing death row.

If you follow the news about the death penalty, you’ve probably heard that five executions are scheduled in United States in the next few weeks — and that one of them is Melissa Lucio, who is set to be killed in Texas in a few days despite overwhelming evidence that she was coerced into confessing to a crime she didn’t commit.

You may not have heard that, here in North Carolina, this week marked our state’s first capital trial and death sentence since the pandemic began. A Hoke County jury sentenced Tillman Freeman III to death after he accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty to killing his two children. The sentencing hearing received almost no news coverage.

Without the clamor of executions, it’s easy to forget that North Carolina has a death penalty. But below the radar, the machinery of death cranks on. Our state continues to house one of the largest death row populations in the nation, now with 135 people. Capital trials continue to be scheduled and, occasionally, juries still sentence people to be executed. Meanwhile, the litigation that is holding executions at bay continues its way through the courts.

About a dozen more capital trials are now scheduled in North Carolina. [Learn more here about the current status of the NC death penalty.] Each trial will have huge emotional and financial costs, yet will do nothing to make our state safer.

During the pandemic, we went two and a half years without a capital trial or death sentence, and we were no less safe than we are now. The existence of the death penalty did not prevent this tragic crime, and it will not prevent others. If we as a society are truly concerned about crime prevention, we should work to build healthy families and communities rather than devising cruel punishments.

New death sentences help to preserve a racist and unjust institution — and to skew the entire criminal punishment system toward extreme and inhumane sentences. They also serve as a reminder that we must keep working to end the death penalty in North Carolina.

It’s not enough that we aren’t executing people like our neighbors in South Carolina, who are bringing back the firing squad. We need to fully abolish this futile system of state-sponsored killing.

This commentary was first published by the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Kristin Collins (pictured at left) is the Director of Public Information for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.

Mockery of justice: Jury deciding fate of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers highlights a nation’s failure to prevent racist jury strikes

In this May 2020 photo, crowds gathered on the lawn of the Glynn County Courthouse as a grand jury considered murder indictments in the Ahmaud Arbery murder case. Photo: Georgia Recorder.

The law promises a “race-neutral” process for choosing juries. Yet, last week, the nation watched as a jury of eleven whites and just one Black person was seated to hear the case of the three white men accused of hunting down and killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging through a residential neighborhood.

This skewed jury came from a pool that was one quarter Black. But, one by one, almost every person of color was struck. How does this happen?

This week’s excellent story in The Intercept, about North Carolina’s ongoing scourge of racism in jury selection, provides an answer. Black citizens who report for jury duty, particularly in high profile cases, are subjected to a barrage of questions, as prosecutors hunt for any seemingly “race-neutral” reason to strike them.

They once had a negative encounter with police? Strike. They’ve had a family member in prison? Strike. They believe the criminal punishment system is racially discriminatory? Strike.

A rational person might think that having first-hand experience with the ways that racism infects courts and policing would make someone a fairer, more careful juror. These kinds of perspectives could bring needed balance to juries. But the law considers these legitimate, “race-neutral” reasons to exclude people. And (surprise!) almost all the people excluded for their negative law enforcement experiences are Black.

But not every Black juror offers such a simple reason. So prosecutors (and occasionally, as in the Arbery case, defense attorneys) dig deeper for “race-neutral” reasons to strike Black jurors. The reasons often defy logic or carry echoes of racist stereotypes.

The juror rented rather than owned a home, and therefore had a lesser stake in the community. The juror wasn’t registered to vote. The juror wasn’t well dressed. The juror was too young and attractive. The juror attended a historically Black college. The juror was “monosyllabic” when answering yes or no questions. The juror didn’t make eye contact with the prosecutor or had an “air of defiance.”

North Carolina courts have accepted these reasons for strikes of Black jurors as “race neutral,” including in death penalty cases. In one capital case, a prosecutor admitted that he struck two jurors because they were “both Black females.” (It’s also illegal to strike a juror because of gender.) However, the North Carolina courts allowed the strikes because the prosecutor offered a second reason that was not explicitly racist.

The enforcement of the Supreme Court’s decision in Batson v. Kentucky, barring race discrimination in jury selection has become a charade. This is especially true in North Carolina where prosecutors have shared tips on how to strike Black jurors and get away with it. North Carolina is also the only state in the South where the courts have never once overturned a conviction because of discrimination against a juror of color.

The N.C. Supreme Court is currently considering a handful of cases that could finally change this deplorable record, including the case where the two Black women were struck. These cases provide some small measure of hope, but for the most part, they are too little, too late. In each case, the court is considering whether a jury strike is racist years or decades after it happened. Even if the court finds in their favor, the defendants will have spent huge swaths of their lives in prison, and people of color will have been denied their right to participate as citizens in a democracy.

This large-scale failure to ensure diverse juries is one of the major reasons why North Carolina passed the Racial Justice Act. The legislature repealed the law in 2013, but we are still fighting for the right of every person on death row to have their case freshly examined for racism.

Jury discrimination of all kinds must stop, but it’s especially pernicious in cases where a jury decides life and death. No defendant, Black or white, should be put to death by a jury where the voices of people of color were excluded.  To achieve true justice, juries need the perspectives of all citizens.

Kristin Collins is the Associate Director of Public Information at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. This post appeared originally on the website of the North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Wake County sought the death penalty for a man with severe mental illness; only a pandemic stopped it

A bipartisan group of North Carolina legislators introduced a bill this week to prohibit the death penalty for people with severe mental illness.

Wake County prosecutors knew that Kendrick Gregory had severe mental illness when they decided to try him capitally. In the eight months before the crime, he’d been hospitalized at least 20 times for mental illness. He checked himself into emergency rooms over and over, reporting symptoms of psychosis. On some occasions, he said he heard voices telling him to hurt himself.

In the five years that they sought to try him for the death penalty, his mental illness became only more apparent. In jail, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and twice found incompetent to stand trial. He was often unkempt and was unable to help his attorneys prepare his defense.

Instead of accepting that Mr. Gregory was simply too mentally ill to be tried capitally, Wake County prosecutors asked the judge to forcibly medicate him — an attempt to “restore” him to competency so they could ask a jury to kill him.

This kind of case is exactly the reason that Ohio recently made history by becoming the first state to ban the death penalty for people with severe mental illness, a law that will protect vulnerable people and save millions a year on costly capital trials. The Constitution says the death penalty is to be reserved for the most culpable defendants and the most calculated murders, but too often it’s used instead against vulnerable and marginalized people like Mr. Gregory, who are poor, Black, and suffering from diminished mental capacity.

It is both immoral and unconstitutional to execute people who cannot understand or regulate their actions. For exactly those reasons, federal and state laws bar the death penalty for people with intellectual disabilities and children. There is no rational reason for executing people who committed crimes while in the grips of psychosis or whose mental illness prevents them from understanding the consequences of their actions.

Yet, in North Carolina, this remains an accepted practice. Guy LeGrande, who has been on death row since 1996, was allowed to represent himself at his murder trial while so delusional that he believed he was God and that Oprah and other celebrities were sending him messages through the television. His illness was on full display as he told the jury “you will worship me and proclaim me lord and master.” They promptly sentenced him to death, and he remains on death row today.

If not for a global pandemic, Mr. Gregory might have joined Mr. LeGrande on death row. Read more

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, let’s deem the death penalty non-essential work

The execution viewing area at Central Prison in Raleigh, Photo by Scott Langley, deathpenaltyphoto.org

In the middle of a coronavirus pandemic, society is forced to decide which work is essential. Across the United States, that question is now being applied to countless enterprises — including the death penalty. Is it essential for states to kill people?

Eighteen executions are scheduled between now and the end of the year in Texas, Missouri, Ohio and Tennessee. Countless death penalty trials are also planned across the country, including in North Carolina.

The courts are likely to call off most or all of them because, right now, if our society wants to kill, we must risk harming innocent people too. That has always been true, but the coronavirus allows us to see and feel that risk more concretely.

Texas has already called off two executions. In mid-March, John Hummel and Tracy Beatty had their executions delayed indefinitely. At the time, visitors had already been barred from the state’s prisons and the nation was at the beginning of massive community spread. In those conditions, the idea of bringing together a group of people in a confined space to carry out a lethal injection was rightly deemed absurd

What’s unbelievable is that, in both cases, prosecutors opposed the delay of the executions. One told the court there was “no evidence” that coronavirus would affect the state’s ability to carry out an execution, a statement that reveals just how deeply irrational the death penalty is.

Had the executions been carried out, prison staff and witnesses would have been forced to pack themselves together in tiny rooms. The families of the people being executed might have been denied a final visit, or been forced to choose between saying goodbye to their loved ones or possibly contracting a deadly virus. All to kill a person who no longer presents any threat to society.

In any situation, some people will cling to their old ideas. But in this exceptional time when the death penalty has come to a shuddering halt, it’s possible that many people will gain a new perspective.

Maybe when we emerge from this time in our cocoons, society will be transformed. Maybe we will understand that the law of nature is far more powerful than the law of people, and that the safety the death penalty promises is an illusion. Maybe we will finally see that humans don’t need to do the work of killing.

This post appeared originally on the website of the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.