NC Supreme Court rejects two claims of racial bias in murder case jury selection

Carolina Journal photo by Maya Reagan
  • The N.C. Supreme Court has rejected two convicted murderers' claims that racial bias in jury selection tainted their trials.
  • In both cases, Republican justices overruled Democratic colleagues' dissents.

The state’s highest court rejected two cases Thursday of convicted murderers claiming unconstitutional bias in their cases’ jury selection. In both cases, the court’s Republican majority overruled Democratic dissent.

Cedric Theodis Hobbs Jr. was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in the 2010 shooting death of Kyle Harris in Cumberland County. Hobbs’ complaints about racial bias in jury selection prompted the N.C. Supreme Court to send the case back to a trial judge in 2020.

Justices ordered the trial court to determine whether jury selection in Hobbs’ case included a “Batson” violation. Batson refers to a court precedent involving claims that a prosecutor unconstitutionally removed a juror because of his race.

Now, in a 3-2 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial judge’s latest decision that Hobbs did not prove racial bias that would help overturn his conviction. Justices Phil Berger Jr. and Richard Dietz did not take part in the case.

“The trial court is in the best position to weigh credibility and assess the demeanor of both the prosecutor and the prospective jurors,” wrote Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican. “Here the trial court fully complied with this Court’s remand instructions in Hobbs I by extensively ‘considering the evidence in its totality’ and making findings of fact based on that evidence. After carefully weighing the evidence, the trial court concluded that defendant had failed to prove there was a Batson violation.”

“Applying the proper deferential standard of review, the trial court’s conclusions are supported by its findings of fact,” Newby added. “Additionally, our independent examination of the entire evidence supports the trial court’s findings and conclusions. Thus, the trial court’s order on remand is not clearly erroneous.”

Justice Anita Earls wrote a dissent joined by fellow Democratic Justice Michael Morgan. Earls questioned prosecutors’ decision to remove three black jurors from Hobbs’ case.

“Mr. Hobbs’s case is susceptible to racial discrimination because he is Black and four of his victims are white,” Earls wrote. She cited a university study showing a “culture of discrimination” in Cumberland County from 1990 to 2010. Earls also labeled prosecutors’ race-neutral explanations for removing the three jurors as “pretextual.”

“Taking all this information together, I would conclude the State impermissibly used race to exclude Black prospective jurors and that the trial court committed several factual and legal errors in concluding otherwise,” Earls wrote.

In the separate case of Anitwuan Tyrez Campbell, the Columbus County defendant claimed that racial discrimination in jury selection tainted his trial. Campbell was convicted of shooting Wilbur Allen Davis Jr. to death in 2015 after an argument.

Campbell’s lawyers argued that prosecutors violated Batson by targeting blacks for three of four of juror strikes. That 75% ratio is higher than the ratio in another precedent case titled Barden.

“Defendant’s argument is without merit,” wrote Berger for a 6-1 majority. “Reliance on a single mathematical ratio, standing alone in a cold record, is insufficient here. Not only would such an approach result in this Court ‘splitting hairs,’ but it would also demand that we abandon all pretense of deference to the trial judge, who, ‘with his experience in voir dire, is in by far the best position to make the Batson prima facie case determination.’”

“Our decision in Barden was not an invitation for defendants to manufacture minimal records on appeal and force appellate courts to engage in a purely mathematical analysis,” Berger added.

Earls offered the single dissenting vote in Campbell’s case. “Today, this Court returns to the practice of refusing to acknowledge what is in plain sight and turns a blind eye to evidence of racial discrimination in jury selection in this case by contorting the doctrine and turning the Batson test into an impossible hurdle,” she wrote.

The dissent noted that prosecutors struck one potential juror because of her involvement in the Black Lives Matter group. “It is a troubling and illogical proposition to assert that it is race-neutral for a prosecutor to excuse a Black woman as a prospective juror on the grounds that she cannot be unbiased due to her association with a predominately Black organization that brings to light ‘what it means to be [B]lack in this country’ and ‘[p]rovide[s] hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation.’ The majority’s only way to overcome the natural force of this race-conscious rationale is to pretend it did not happen.”

With Thursday’s decisions, neither Hobbs nor Campbell can use claims of racial bias in jury selection to demand new trials.