The North Carolina Supreme Court made history yesterday in a jury discrimination case opinion by giving lower courts guidance for the first time about how to dig deeper and better assess claims of racial discrimination in jury selection.
North Carolina appellate courts have never acknowledged race discrimination against jurors of color; it stands alone in that regard among southern states.
In a 6-1 opinion written by Justice Anita Earls and released Friday, the high court sought to correct that by sending a Cumberland County murder case back down to the trial court for a proper Batson hearing.
Batson v. Kentucky, where the term “Batson violation” comes from, is the case that set the modern rules for addressing racial discrimination in jury selection. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in that case that a prosecutor’s use of a peremptory challenge in a criminal case — the dismissal of jurors without reason — cannot be used to exclude jurors based solely on their race.
In the recent case before the state Supreme Court, Cedric Hobbs Jr., a Black man, was accused of robbing multiple white victims and murdering one white victim. He appealed a trial court and state Court of Appeals’ ruling that he did not meet the evidence threshold in his capital case to prove three Batson violations.
The jury pool for Hobbs’s capital trial was divided into panels of 12, which were called up in subsequent rounds of jury selection as the parties progressed through voir dire (the initial examination of potential jurors). Hobbs made his first Batson objection during the third round of jury selection after the state excused jurors Brian Humphrey and Robert Layden, both of whom were Black, according to the court opinion.
“At the time of those strikes, the State had issued peremptory challenges against eight jurors, two of whom were non-Black and six of whom were Black,” the document states. “Of the 31 qualified jurors tendered to the State, the State had excused two out of 20 white jurors (10%) and six out of 11 black jurors (54.5%).”
Hobbs established a “prima facie” Batson case by arguing the above facts; a prima facie case is one made on first impression and is correct until proved otherwise. He also argued that the similarities between the answers provided by the excused Black jurors and the accepted non-Black jurors, and the history of racial discrimination in jury selection in the Cumberland County.
The trial court ruled at the time Hobbs didn’t make his prima facie discrimination case to meet the standard of law, but still asked the prosecutor for their reasons for excusing those jurors Hobbs objected to. The court ultimately agreed that those reasons were not based on race.
Hobbs made another Batson claim during the fourth round of jury selection, but the court made the same decision. The Court of Appeals upheld the rulings.
The trial court erred, Earls wrote in the Supreme Court opinion, when it ruled Hobbs didn’t meet his prima facie showing of discrimination. That is supposed to be one of three factors in assessing a Batson claim, and the standard of law “is not intended to be a high hurdle for defendants to cross.”
Earls goes into great detail outlining guidance for how a trial court is to proceed on that factor, and the two others, analysis of a state’s race-neutral reasons for striking a juror and pretext.
“Neither the trial court nor the Court of Appeals appropriately considered all of the evidence necessary to determine whether Mr. Hobbs proved purposeful discrimination with respect to the state’s peremptory challenges of jurors Humphrey, Layden, and McNeill,” she wrote.
The attorney who represented Hobbs at the Supreme Court, Sterling Rozear, assistant appellate defender at the North Carolina Office of the Appellate Defender, said this is the first time that court has granted this type of Batson relief in a published opinion.
“I’m glad to have been able to bring Mr. Hobbs’s case to the Supreme Court’s attention, and I’m gratified the Court recognized that there were errors in the way his Batson claims were handled in the lower courts,” he said Friday in an email. At the time, he had not yet been able to contact Hobbs with the good news.
The Supreme Court opinion orders Hobbs’ case back to the trial court for a hearing on the Batson claims and provides guidance on how the law should be applied. The lower court is also ordered to certify its findings back to the Supreme Court within 60 days “or within such time as the current state of emergency allows.”
David Weiss, a staff attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said the court didn’t go as far as erasing its history of not upholding Batson challenges, but the opinion was, nevertheless, encouraging.
“They got the message, They understood what we were telling them,” he said Friday. “It’s a good decision that puts in place stronger protections against race discrimination in jury selection.”
In addition to clarifying that prima facie cases are meant to have a low bar when a defendant shows discrimination, the high court also brought guidance for lower courts in step with newer U.S. Supreme Court cases addressing Batson. That includes considering evidence showing race is still at play when a prosecutor doesn’t strike a white juror for the same reason they struck a Black juror.
James Coleman, a Duke law professor and scholar on race and the law, had filed a “friend of the court” brief in Hobbs’s case and another jury discrimination case heard by the high court at the same time (which has not yet been decided). He also was heartened by Friday’s opinion.
This is an extraordinary decision; historic in light of how NC courts previously ignored the letter and spirit of the Batson v. Kentucky decision,” he said. “It ought to have the desired effect of prompting prosecutors to stop excluding Black citizens from criminal juries and justifying the discrimination with barely disguised pretextual explanations. At the same time, it ought to force trial judges to take this kind of discrimination seriously.”
Justice Paul Newby, the only Republican on the high court, dissented from Friday’s opinion. He noted he believed the trial court already conducted the correct inquiry for a Batson challenge.
Read the full opinion and dissent below.