The Atlantic

Saved From Death Row, Only to Be Returned

A set of unusual cases in North Carolina brings new attention to racism in death-penalty trials.
Source: Stephen Lam / Reuters

In 1991, an 18-year-old named Marcus Robinson, along with a friend, carjacked a white teenager, who was later found dead at a construction site. At trial, Robinson and his accomplice each said the other had shot the victim.

Both Robinson and the friend were black, and race immediately became a hallmark of the prosecution’s strategy in Robinson’s trial. During jury selection, John Dickson, the prosecutor, asked a potential black juror if he had trouble reading; he did not ask any white candidates that question. He struck five out of 10 black jury candidates and only four out of 28 nonblack candidates. The judge, prosecutor, and defense attorneys were white. So were a majority of the jurors, who, in 1994, sentenced Robinson to death. (His friend, Roderick Williams, received a life sentence.) Robinson was the youngest person ever sentenced to death in North Carolina.

He had been on death row for 15 years when, in August of 2009, the North Carolina legislature, dominated at the time by Democrats, passed the Racial Justice Act, which sought to reckon with a legacy of racism infecting capital cases. While overt racism in criminal trials had long been outlawed by the U.S. Constitution, the new law permitted

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