By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
August 28, 2020
A killer has sidestepped his death sentence and others may be able to do the same as a result of an egregious 4-3 ruling by the N.C. Supreme Court announced on Aug. 14, the latest of continued attempts by death penalty opponents to abolish capital punishment.
Marcus Robinson was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1991 killing of 17-year-old Erik Tornblom and sentenced to death in 1994 in Cumberland County Superior Court. He and his accomplice, Roderick Williams, shot Tornblom in the face with a sawed-off shotgun after he agreed to give them a ride in his car. Robinson told police “the boy kept begging and pleading for us not to hurt him, because he didn’t have any money.”
Nearly three decades later, those facts are unchanged. What has changed is North Carolina’s legal landscape, with the passage of the so-called Racial Justice Act, its amendment, repeal and, as of June, its apparent reinstatement for death row inmates who filed suit when the law was in effect. The complicated web of RJA rulings provided the backdrop for this month’s controversial verdict and may continue to wreak havoc in the state’s justice system for years to come.
Here’s how Robinson’s case played out: On direct appeal, the Supreme Court found no error in his conviction or sentence. But in 2009, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Racial Justice Act, an unusual law which allowed defendants to have their sentences changed to life in prison if they could show that race was a significant factor in how the courts decided to seek or impose the death penalty in the county, the prosecutorial district or the judicial division of the state at the time. Robinson’s case was the first to be re-examined in light of the RJA, and in 2012 Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks removed Robinson from death row, not because there was any doubt about his guilt, and not because of anything specific to his trial, but only because of statistics that purported to prove statewide racial bias in jury selection.
Later that year, realizing that the RJA as written was likely going to allow the vast majority of killers — no matter their race — off death row, state lawmakers tightened the act to make it harder for defendants to win. The following year, they repealed it altogether.
In late 2015 the State Supreme Court ruled that Judge Weeks made errors at Robinson’s hearing in 2012. Robinson was returned to death row so the case could be done over. And in 2017, Superior Court Judge W. Edwin Spainhour ruled that the defendants could no longer use the Racial Justice Act because it had been repealed. The Aug. 14 Supreme Court ruling overturned Spainhour’s decision.
In her majority opinion, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote that retroactively applying the appeal of the RJA would constitute double jeopardy in Robinson’s case. The constitutional prohibition of double jeopardy is the law that prevents the state from trying someone twice for the same crime.
“Once Robinson’s death sentence was vacated under the RJA, Article I, Section 19 of the North Carolina Constitution barred the reinstatement of his capital sentence,” Beasley wrote.
But Justice Paul Newby, who wrote a stinging dissent, said that Beasley’s theories regarding double jeopardy are totally unsupported and that the majority opinion relies heavily on Weeks’ 2012 ruling, which had already been overturned.
“Their reliance on a vacated order is totally at odds with fundamental legal principles and this Court’s many precedents holding that vacated orders are null and void,” Newby wrote, adding that “A one-sided version of the ‘facts’ seems to suit their purpose.”
Newby said the four justices disregarded or distorted precedent as necessary “to reach their desired result.”
“Apparently, in their view, the law is whatever they say it is,” he wrote.
Associate Justice Sam Ervin IV wrote a separate dissent, supported by Associate Justice Mark Davis.
“This recent erroneous decision by the High Court shows how important our next election is. The Court is currently dominated by liberals and apparently death penalty opponents,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “When justice is denied because judges either have the wrong worldview, or they are corrupt and unrighteous because they ignore the law of God and supplant it with their own interpretations of justice — then they provoke the wrath of God on all of us.”
“The Bible says, ‘Why do you show me iniquity, and cause me to behold grievance? For spoiling and violence are before me: and those there are that raise up strife and contention. Therefore the law is slacked, and judgment does never go forth: for the wicked do compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceeds.’ (Hab. 1:3,4). People need to pay attention to the seats that are currently open on the State Supreme Court, which are three. And the only conservatives running for those seats are Tamara Barringer, Phil Berger Jr. and Justice Paul Newby,” Creech added.
North Carolina has not executed anyone since 2006. And while capital punishment opponents have used tactics such as the RJA to further their cause, Paul Stam says the law has not helped minorities.
“The victims of the Racial Justice Act have been mostly innocent African Americans,” says Stam, a former member of the state’s House of Representatives for 16 years who pushed for the law’s repeal. “Numerically the majority of the victims of homicide in North Carolina are African Americans. Several hundred of them and their families have been denied justice and an appropriate deterrent now for 11 years.”
Before the act was passed in 2009, Stam and other lawmakers accurately predicted that almost every person on death row, no matter their race, would take advantage of it. Ultimately, 152 of the 156 murderers then on death row did so. In a recent article published by Civitas, Stam listed seven convicted killers from one Tar Heel county who have had their death sentences indefinitely postponed because of the RJA. Five are white, one is part American Indian and one is Black.