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A Mother Who Has Lost Two Sons

Later today, a Superior Court judge in Fayetteville will preside over a hearing that will ultimately decide whether to let a death row inmate live. Marcus Robinson is the first prisoner on death row to appeal his sentence under the Racial Justice Act, passed in 2009. If the judge finds racial bias played a role in Robinson’s conviction or sentencing, his sentence could be commuted to life in prison. Robinson’s mother, Shirley Burns, plans to attend the hearing. As the mother of one son on death row and another who was murdered, Burns is a familiar figure in Cumberland County courtrooms.

Jessica Jones: Shirley Burns lives in a quiet neighborhood outside Fayetteville, where she has worked as a nurse for years. She loves knickknacks, especially angel figurines. There’s a long line of them displayed on the mantel of her living room fireplace.

Shirley Burns: This one right here, the two large ones, are the guardian angels over the whole house.

Each figure represents something or someone to Burns. She touches her favorite- a tall angel holding one cherub in her arms with another floating above its shoulder.

Burns: Curtis is the one with the angels that has flown away. Marcus is the one that the angel is still holding in her arms. That’s the one incarcerated.

Marcus Robinson, who’s African-American, was convicted in 1994 of killing a white teenager and sent to death row. More than a decade later, his older brother Curtis, who was in the Navy, was found lying dead in a ditch. Burns says she would have lost her mind both times were it not for her strong Christian faith.

Burns: The biggest test that I’ve had to go through at first was my son being incarcerated. No parent want that and I had to draw from the well then. And I had a son who was murdered. I had to draw from the well then.

But some would say Burns has drawn from the well many times before that. Born in Georgia, she married a soldier and moved her growing family to Fayetteville. But her husband was abusive, especially toward Marcus, who was her youngest child. Burns says she took the abuse herself to prevent her husband from harming the little boy. It got so bad that one day he threatened to kill her.

Burns: The last thing I remember when that shotgun was put to my head. I said well God he say his father say I’m sick of you and that Jesus. So I say God if it’s my time to go, watch over my babies, watch over my children, and it went off and it went in the ceiling.

That emboldened Burns to stop hiding the abuse. She started going to church with black eyes so everyone in the congregation knew what was happening. Eventually, Burns divorced and went back to work as a nurse. But money was tight, and she wasn’t home during the day to keep a close eye on her kids- especially Marcus, who was a handful.

Burns: They got picked on a lot. Marcus- our children learn once you get to a certain age your parents can’t make you go to school. And I would be at work and would think he was at school. He would be at some other kid’s house.

Burns found it hard to discipline Marcus. Once he broke her window and she decided to call the police on him to teach him a lesson. But she says he kept hanging around the wrong crowd. In 1994, Marcus was convicted for the 1991 murder of Erik Tornblom. His co-defendant is serving a life sentence. Burns believes racial bias played a role in the jury’s decision to convict her son.

Burns: If you don’t have the financial resources you don’t know the right people to stand up and intervene for you, you can get the short end of the stick. And my son’s trial to me was a mockery to justice. It really was. And the racial justice act is a good thing. For everybody.

Some critics of the Racial Justice Act say it only benefits African-Americans. But Burns believes juries can be biased against whites too, especially when class issues come into play. When it comes to attorneys, she says she wishes there were a law that forced prosecutors to go after all criminals equally. Her son Curtis was killed by two black men. Burns believes prosecutors should’ve worked harder to punish his murderers.

Burns: The people who willfully, intentionally, premeditated, took my son’s life Curtis, I didn’t ask for the death penalty. But I found out that the state could have incarcerated them for life. They did not. They didn’t go after these guys who willfully planned plotted and carried out my son’s death.

What happened to Curtis weighs on Burns. She wishes she had pushed prosecutors more. As for Marcus who’s on death row- Burns says as a young mother she never would have imagined her youngest child would end up there. She says she has conversations with Marcus about this.

Burns: I say maybe you’re serving your purpose in life, to open up the eyes of people. Not that it’s what we would choose for you. And I try to look at things in a sunny way. I say it doesn’t feel good, where we are but I say some good can come out of a bad situation.

Marcuses hearing will begin at ten o’clock this morning. It could last as long as two weeks.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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