Trial By Color

Minnesota courts tighten rules against race-based appeals, but it's small consolation to Dameion Robinson

April 17 must have been a bittersweet day for Dameion Robinson, who is serving a life sentence in prison for a murder he has always maintained he didn't commit. That day, two of his fellow inmates won new trials, and for Robinson the fact that their appeals had been persuasive held multiple ironies.

In one of the cases, the judge agreed that the state's star witness--the same jailhouse informant who had fingered Robinson--might well have lied. But the latter decision had to be especially frustrating. Attorneys aren't supposed to make race-based arguments in court, but at Robinson's trial, the prosecutor several times told the all-white jury that Robinson, who is black, and the African-American witnesses in his case didn't come from the same world as "Pope John Paul and Mother Theresa," and weren't "businessmen from Edina arguing over stock options."

Ernest A Bryant

Robinson had appealed on the grounds that the prosecutor had committed misconduct when he made those statements, and the Minnesota Supreme Court had rejected his argument. But in the three years that elapsed between his appeal and the current one, the composition of the state Supreme Court changed. More specifically, the justice who wrote the opinion rejecting Robinson's argument stepped down last year. And in April, his replacement handed down an opinion that chastised the same prosecutor for making similar arguments in another Minneapolis murder case.

In practical terms, neither decision is likely to mean much to Robinson; in the five years he's been in prison, his appeals have run their course.

 

In August 1997, three north Minneapolis men tried to buy a gun from a man named Johnny Edwards. Edwards and an accomplice decided to rob the men instead, and the accomplice shot and wounded two of them. When officers collared Edwards later that night, he claimed that both the robbery and a seemingly unrelated murder the night before had been committed by his accomplice, whom he identified as Dameion Robinson. The same gun had been used in both crimes, Edwards insisted, and ballistics would prove it.

The gun did indeed link the two cases, and Robinson was convicted of the murder--but only after a judge took the controversial step of allowing the prosecutor to present testimony about the robbery, even though Robinson was not on trial for that crime. However, a few weeks later when Robinson faced a jury in the robbery case, he was acquitted.

Edwards didn't take the stand in either case, presumably because he would be easy to discredit. In an attempt to get out from under another armed robbery charge several years earlier, he'd fingered half a dozen reputed gang members in some high-profile cases. He'd been wrong about some of the cases, however, and several times prosecutors had been forced to admit they had charged the wrong man. Eventually, Edwards pleaded guilty to shooting two men during the robbery and to an unrelated narcotics charge.

For Robinson, having been convicted by one jury and acquitted by another was of no legal significance ("S is for Spriegl," February 2, 2000). Instead, he argued that during his trial, the prosecutor had made racially charged statements to the jury. "The prosecutor stirred the jury's passions against appellant by saying that appellant was not of the same world as the jurors (or the prosecutor), but from a world of decadence, thievery, and violence," his appeal argued. "In addition to dehumanizing appellant, separating him from the jurors and the prosecutor as people--he's not like you and I--appealing to their passions and prejudices, the prosecutor was also attacking appellant's character and making a subtle appeal based on race, comparing appellant, a black man, with 'Edina businessmen' and the all-white jury."

In a January 2000 decision, the justices disagreed: "In the context of the circumstances surrounding the crime, it seems clear that these comments did little more than prepare the jury for evidence of an unfamiliar world involving drugs."

Three years later, the Minnesota Supreme Court did a seeming about-face. On April 17, the court overturned the murder conviction of a man named Secundus Arie Ray. The biggest problem with Ray's prosecution was the fact that police kept questioning him after he'd asked for an attorney, a clear error. But in the process of deciding the case, the justices also concluded that the Hennepin County prosecutor involved, Mike Furnstahl, had invited "the jury to apply racial and socioeconomic considerations that would deny the defendant a fair trial." The case, Furnstahl had told jurors, would be a "challenge... because it's not in an environment that most, if not all you people, are familiar with.

"This is not a dispute between a businessman or a businesswoman from Edina and another businessman or businesswoman from Minnetonka," Furnstahl went on. "This is a dispute... involving three young black males in the 'hood in north Minneapolis. This is not your environment, this is the defendant's environment. So it's a challenge to you to remove yourself from your environment and look at this case and these witnesses in the context of the environment that they come from."

The justices didn't buy the state's explanation that Furnstahl's remarks were an attempt to forestall defense attempts to discredit the witnesses. "The state's position would be stronger if the same prosecutor had not previously faced similar challenges, both before this court and the court of appeals," they declared, noting that similar arguments had formed the basis both for Robinson's appeal and for that of a man convicted of assault in 2000.

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