A decision to strike down North Carolina’s election maps grabbed the headlines. But another recent case with a party-line 4-3 split on the state Supreme Court could have an even longer-lasting impact.
The court’s decision in State v. Clegg could open the door for more convicted criminals to get new trials.
Democratic justices outnumber Republicans, 4-3, on the state’s highest court. That partisan split attracted widespread attention on Feb. 4, when the Democrats overruled their Republican colleagues to strike down state congressional and legislative election maps.
One week later, with much less publicity, the same partisan split cropped up in the Clegg case. The court’s four Democrats threw out a robbery conviction against defendant Christopher Anthony Clegg. They decided that his trial had been tainted by a prosecutor’s questionable decision to remove two black women from Clegg’s jury.
“Over 140 years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States held that exclusion of African Americans from juries on the basis of race violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” wrote Justice Robin Hudson for the Democratic majority.
A 1986 case known as Batson established a process for addressing racial discrimination claims in jury selection. “Today, we must decide whether the prosecutor’s exclusion of an African-American potential juror constitutes a substantive violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to equal protection under Batson when the trial court found that ‘both race-neutral justifications offered by the prosecutor fail,’” Hudson wrote. “We hold that it does.”
But a dissent in the case highlights flaws in the Clegg majority’s arguments.
Unlike the Democratic majority, Republican justices focused attention on the criminal act. “There is no question in this case as to defendant’s guilt,” wrote Justice Phil Berger Jr. “It is uncontroverted that on Jan. 25, 2014, defendant robbed a Wake County business at gun point. Defendant threatened to kill the employee, a black female, and he pointed a firearm at her stomach.”
“After only receiving $85 from the cash register, defendant pressed the firearm against the employee’s neck,” Berger added. “Defendant then noticed a safe, and he pointed the firearm at the employee’s left temple and ordered her to open it. Defendant fled the scene when the employee did not have the combination to the safe.”
At the outset of Clegg’s trial, the prosecutor removed two black women as potential jurors. In legal jargon, the prosecutor used “peremptory strikes” against the women.
One potential juror, Viola Jeffreys, had worked at a state mental hospital. The prosecutor argued that type of work experience could have affected her opinion of mental health evidence in the case.
Berger called his Democratic colleagues to task for focusing undue attention on Jeffreys’ removal. “The majority mentions Ms. Jeffreys more than thirty times in its opinion, but they do not analyze or even consider the legitimate reasons for her strike because doing so destroys their narrative,” he wrote. “To be clear, there is no determination by the majority that the prosecutor’s strike of Ms. Jeffreys was motivated by race.”
“However, the majority uses carefully selected portions of the record, including Ms. Jeffreys’ demographic information, to lump her in with the discussion of Ms. Aubrey, implying that both strikes were based on race,” Berger added. “While the cherry-picked facts and circumstances may be helpful to their desired result, analysis of Ms. Jeffreys’ strike is required for a proper review.”
In the second instance, the prosecutor made a clear mistake when using a peremptory strike for potential juror Gwendolyn Aubrey. When asked whether she would be able to focus on the trial, Aubrey said, “I suppose.” Later, the prosecutor told the trial judge Aubrey had answered “I suppose” when asked if she could be fair and impartial.
The judge didn’t correct the error. “In other words, the prosecutor and the trial court were mistaken about the question posed by the State and the response given, … and that but for the mistaken explanation, the record revealed that there was a race-neutral explanation for the strike,” Berger wrote.
“Defendant has not shown purposeful discrimination or bad faith in the prosecutor’s mistaken explanation; it is only theorized by the majority,” he added.
Berger and his Republican colleagues would have assigned more weight to decisions made during the trial by Judge Paul Ridgeway. No novice, Ridgeway is the senior resident Superior Court judge in Wake County.
“Trial court judges are uniquely positioned to consider and evaluate whether peremptory strikes are the product of purposeful discrimination,” Berger wrote. “The Supreme Court has ‘recognized that these determinations of credibility and demeanor lie peculiarly within a trial judge’s province.’”
“From its unique position, the trial court observed the strikes of Ms. Jeffreys and Ms. Aubrey and heard the explanations for the strikes offered by the State,” Berger wrote. “In a comprehensive order, the trial court made detailed findings of fact and conclusions of law, ultimately overruling defendant’s objections to the peremptory strikes.”
“The majority, however, declines to give the trial court any measure of deference, adopting its own view of the evidence,” Berger added. “In so doing, the majority ignores the caution advised by the Supreme Court that ‘mistaken explanations should not be confused with racial discrimination.’”
Now that the court’s Democratic justices have opened the door, there’s no reason to think other convicted criminals won’t try to step through. That’s why this party-line ruling could have a long-lasting impact on North Carolina’s criminal justice system.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.