WASHINGTON — A North Carolina judge Friday commuted the death penalty of a black man accused of murdering a white man, saying race played a role in the severity of the sentence, in the first case reviewed under a new state law.

Judge Greg Weeks of Fayetteville commuted the sentence of Marcus Robinson to life imprisonment. The American Civil Liberties (ACLU) hailed the action as a landmark "victory over racial bias" in a capital case.

Weeks said the death penalty would violate North Carolina's 2009 Racial Justice Act, which prohibits courts from seeking or imposing the death penalty when race is a factor in the sentence.

According to the ACLU, the jury in Robinson's case consisted of only two black people compared with nine white people and one Native American.

In addition, the prosecution rejected 50 percent of the potential black jurors and only 15 percent of potential white jurors, the ACLU said.

The organization said the case was the first test under North Carolina's new Racial Justice Act, which allows capital defendants to use statistical evidence to show systemic bias in the death penalty.

In a copy of a motion filed in the case that was obtained by AFP, Robinson's attorneys said "race was a significant factor" in the trial and asked the court "to enter a sentence of life imprisonment without parole."

The ACLU, which co-signed the motion, said in a statement that North Carolina's judicial system "is plagued by racial discrimination."

"In the last decade... defendants convicted of killing white victims were more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty from the jury than defendants charged with killing victims of color," the statement said.

"This evidence points to the disturbing conclusion that Marcus Robinson, a black defendant convicted for the death of a white person, received a far harsher judgment than white defendants who committed comparable crimes and from a jury that may have been tainted by a racially biased jury selection process," the ACLU statement said.

Robinson, who was 18 years old at the time, was convicted of killing a white teenager in 1991. His execution had been scheduled once but a judge granted him a reprieve.

Prosecutors said they plan to appeal, according to the North Carolina media.

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Photo of death row building in Idaho by Jimmy Wayne via Flickr