By Wade Rawlins
FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina (Reuters) - A North Carolina judge on Friday commuted the death sentence of a black man convicted of the 1991 murder of a white teenage boy after finding that state prosecutors had deliberately excluded blacks from the jury.
In the first test of North Carolina's controversial Racial Justice Act, Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Gregory Weeks said he found intentional and systematic discrimination by prosecutors over two decades against black jurors in death penalty cases.
In a 167-page ruling that commuted the death sentence of Marcus Robinson to life in prison without parole, Weeks cited abundant evidence of "the persistent, distorting role of race in jury selection in North Carolina."
Robinson was convicted in 1994 of the kidnapping and murder of Erik Tornblom, who was forced by Robinson and another man, Roderick Sylvester Williams Jr., to drive to a remote location, where the teenager was shot in the face and robbed.
Robinson is among 150 Death Row inmates in North Carolina challenging their sentences under a 2009 law allowing the use of statistical analysis to show a pattern of racial bias in jury selection and sentencing.
The Racial Justice Act allows Death Row inmates to have their sentences reduced to life without parole if a judge determines that racial discrimination played a significant role in their sentencing.
While agreeing that Tornblom's murder was brutal, Weeks said the issue before the court was whether North Carolina's justice system impartially imposed the death sentence. Racial bias tainted jury selection in Cumberland County and throughout the state at the time of the trial, he noted.
"It marks a turning point in jury selection in North Carolina," said James Ferguson, an attorney representing Robinson. "While it does not bind other courts, it is a significant ruling."
Prosecutors said in court they would ask the North Carolina Court of Appeals to review the ruling but did not comment on it.
North Carolina prosecutors were more than twice as likely to strike qualified blacks from serving on a jury than whites in death penalty cases from 1990 to 2010, according to a study of the state's justice system by two Michigan State University law professors. The results were introduced as evidence during a hearing in January.
The law was passed when Democrats controlled North Carolina's legislature. Republicans, now the majority, passed legislation in 2011 to effectively overturn it, but they failed to override a veto by Democratic Governor Beverly Perdue.
"The judge (Weeks) got it right," said Neil Vidmar, a Duke University law professor and jury selection expert. "North Carolina's law was groundbreaking."
Shirley Burns, who is Robinson's mother, wept as the ruling was read, while members of Tornblom's family sat in the jury box and then left the courtroom without speaking.
"Facts are facts," Burns said. "Everybody is not innocent. Everybody is not guilty. At least be fair."
(Reporting by Wade Rawlins; Editing by Dan Burns and Paul Simao)