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Prosecutors learn how to fight Racial Justice Act motions

WINSTON-SALEM (AP) — In a closed-door session, about 60 prosecutors from North Carolina last week learned how to fight motions filed under the Racial Justice Act.

The Winston-Salem Journal reported that the prosecutors were being given information on the 2009 law, which allows death row prisoners to use statistics and other evidence to try to prove race played a significant role in their sentences.

If they’re successful, their sentences are reduced to life in prison without parole. One sentence has been reduced so far, that of Marcus Robinson, who killed a white teenager.

Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Greg Weeks ordered his sentence reduced last month, saying race played a “persistent, pervasive and distorting role” in jury selection and couldn’t be explained other than that “prosecutors have intentionally discriminated” against Robinson and other capital defendants statewide.

The training session was held at an undisclosed location in Forsyth County and wasn’t open to the public. Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill said he didn’t know the cost, but said the bills will go to the N.C. Administrative Office of the Courts.

Forsyth County prosecutors are consulting with statistical experts and other witnesses who might be used in other Racial Justice Act cases across North Carolina. Giving other prosecutors a chance to hear those experts in a one-day session saves money, O’Neill said.

He declined to comment on specifics of the training because it deals with pending litigation, but he said in general that the Racial Justice Act has resulted in expensive legal actions.

“This training session is my attempt to save at least some money for the taxpayers,” he said.

Prosecutors have described the act as a backhanded attempt to end the death penalty. They have also said the law would clog the court system. More than 95 percent of the people on death row have filed under the act.

Robinson and co-defendant Roderick Williams Jr. were convicted of murdering 17-year-old Erik Tornblom after the teen gave his killers a ride from a Fayetteville convenience store in 1991. Tornblom was forced to drive to a field, where he was shot with a sawed-off shotgun.

Robinson came close to death in January 2007, but a judge blocked his scheduled execution. Williams is serving a life sentence.

Tye Hunter, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham and one of Robinson’s attorneys, said he has no problem with prosecutors having a training session but hopes they also deal with the racial disparities the Cumberland judge said are inherent in the death penalty.

“I think what Judge Weeks said in his order was that he hoped this would be an opportunity for prosecutors to look at what they had done in the past and avoid making the same mistakes in the future,” he said.


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