Case Summaries: N.C. Supreme Court (Apr. 6, 2023)

This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the Supreme Court of North Carolina released on April 6, 2023. These summaries will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to the present.

Trial court properly concluded that defendant did not prove purposeful discrimination under the third step of Batson inquiry.

State v. Hobbs, 263PA18-2, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 6, 2023). In this Cumberland County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that under the inquiry established by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), no purposeful discrimination in jury selection occurred when the state used peremptory challenges to strike three black jurors.

This matter was originally considered in State v. Hobbs (Hobbs I), 374 N.C. 345 (2020), where the Supreme Court remanded to the trial court with specific directions to conduct a hearing under the third step of the three-step Batson inquiry to determine whether defendant had proven purposeful discrimination. After the hearing, the trial court concluded defendant had not proven purposeful discrimination. In the current opinion, the Supreme Court considered whether the trial court’s conclusions were “clearly erroneous.”

The Supreme Court first noted that under both the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions the striking of potential jurors for race through peremptory challenges is forbidden, and that it has expressly adopted the Batson three-prong test for review of peremptory challenges. Here only the third prong was at issue, where the trial court “determines whether the defendant, who has the burden of proof, established that the prosecutor acted with purposeful discrimination.” Slip Op. at 4. The court then explained the basis of its review and detailed the instructions from Hobbs I for the trial court to consider when performing its analysis. Walking through the evidence for each stricken juror, the court found that the trial court considered the relevant factors and “conducted side-by-side juror comparisons of the three excused prospective jurors at issue with similarly situated prospective white jurors whom the State did not strike,” creating an analysis for each juror. Id. at 9.

In addition to the evidence regarding specific jurors, the court pointed out that “the State’s acceptance rate of black jurors was 50% after the State excused [the last juror under consideration] which did not support a finding of purposeful discrimination.” Id. at 20. Reviewing additional evidence, the court noted that “the trial court found that the relevant history of the State’s peremptory strikes in the jurisdiction was flawed and therefore misleading.” Id. This referred to a study by Michigan State University regarding the use of peremptory strikes in North Carolina. The trial court found that all of the Batson challenges in cases referenced in the study were rejected by North Carolina appellate courts, and the study had three potential flaws:

(1) the study identified juror characteristics without input from prosecutors, thus failing to reflect how prosecutors evaluate various characteristics; (2) recent law school graduates with little to no experience in jury selection evaluated the juror characteristics; and (3) the recent law school graduates conducted their study solely based on trial transcripts rather than assessing juror demeanor and credibility in person.

Id. at 8-9. Based on the court’s review of the entire evidence, it affirmed the trial court’s conclusion of no Batson violation.

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Morgan, dissented, and would have found a Batson violation. Id. at 22.

Trial court properly determined that defendant failed to make prima facie showing of racial discrimination in jury selection under the first step of Batson inquiry.

State v. Campbell, 97A20-2, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 6, 2023). In this Columbus County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision finding no error with the determination that defendant failed to establish a prima facie showing of racial discrimination during jury selection.

In July of 2017, defendant’s charges of first-degree murder and second-degree kidnapping reached trial. During jury selection, defense counsel raised an objection under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), arguing that the state had used three of its four peremptory challenges to strike potential jurors who were black. The trial court denied the Batson objection, finding defendant did not establish a prima facie case, but required the state to offer race-neutral reasons for all four jurors who were stricken. After defendant was convicted, the matter was appealed in State v. Campbell (Campbell I), 269 N.C. App. 427 (2020). Although the Court of Appeals majority found no error, the Supreme Court remanded for consideration in light of State v. Hobbs (Hobbs I), 374 N.C. 345 (2020), and State v. Bennett, 374 N.C. 579 (2020). In the case giving rise to the current opinion, a Court of Appeals majority again found no error in State v. Campbell (Campbell II), 272 N.C. App. 554 (2020).

Reviewing the appeal from Campbell II, the Supreme Court first noted that under both the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions the striking of potential jurors for race through peremptory challenges is forbidden. When a defendant raises a Batson objection, the trial court must apply the first step of the Batson inquiry, which requires “determin[ing] whether the defendant has met his or her burden of ‘establish[ing] a prima facie case that the peremptory challenge was exercised on the basis of race.’” Slip Op. at 10, quoting State v. Cummings, 346 N.C. 291, 307–08 (1997). In the current case, the court reviewed the trial court’s determination under a “clearly erroneous” standard, finding no error and determining “the Batson inquiry should have concluded when the trial court first determined that defendant failed to make a prima facie showing.” Id. at 14. Because the court held the inquiry should have concluded, it did not explore the adequacy of the state’s reasons for each stricken juror.

The court rejected defendant’s argument that the mathematical ratio of the strike rate justified a prima facie case of discrimination under State v. Barden, 356 N.C. 316 (2002), pointing out that this interpretation would effectively remove the first step of the Batson analysis and the deference granted to the trial court. Explaining the holding, the court emphasized “[o]ur 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.” Slip Op. at 16-17. The court likewise rejected defendant’s argument under Hobbs I, that the trial court failed to adequately explain its reasoning in denying the Batson motion. After noting that Hobbs I did not address the prima facie portion of the Batson inquiry, the court held that “[d]efendant has provided no case law from this state or any other jurisdiction establishing that a trial court is required to enter extensive written factual findings in support of its determination that a defendant has failed to establish a prima facie case, and we decline to impose such a requirement.” Id. at 18.

Justice Earls dissented, and would have held that the first step of the Batson inquiry was moot due to the trial court’s requirement that the state offer race neutral justifications for each stricken juror. Id. at 20.

Sentencing defendant as Class B1 felon was appropriate where the jury found all three types of malice supporting the second-degree murder conviction; presence of depraved-heart malice did not create ambiguity justifying Class B2 felony sentencing.

State v. Borum, 505PA20, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 6, 2023). In this Mecklenburg County case, the Supreme Court reversed an unpublished Court of Appeals decision and affirmed the trial court’s sentencing of defendant at the Class B1 felony level for second-degree murder.

In February of 2019, defendant went on trial for first-degree murder for shooting a man during a protest. During the jury charge conference, the trial court explained the three theories of malice applicable to the case: actual malice, condition of mind malice, and depraved-heart malice. The verdict form required the jury to identify which type of malice supported the verdict. When the jury returned a verdict of guilty for second-degree murder, all three types of malice were checked on the verdict form. At sentencing, defendant’s attorney argued that he should receive a Class B2 sentence, as depraved-heart malice was one of the three types of malice identified by the jury. The trial court disagreed, and sentenced defendant as Class B1. The Court of Appeals reversed this holding, determining the verdict was ambiguous and construing the ambiguity in favor of the defendant.

Reviewing defendant’s appeal, the Supreme Court found no ambiguity in the jury’s verdict. Explaining the applicable law under G.S. 14-17(b), the court noted that depraved-heart malice justified sentencing as Class B2, while the other two types of malice justified Class B1. Defendant argued that he should not be sentenced as Class B1 if there were facts supporting a Class B2 sentence. The court clarified the appropriate interpretation of the statute, holding that where “the jury’s verdict unambiguously supports a second-degree murder conviction based on actual malice or condition of mind malice, a Class B1 sentence is required, even when depraved-heart malice is also found.” Id. at 7. The language of the statute supported this conclusion, as “the statute plainly expresses that a person convicted of second-degree murder is only sentenced as a Class B2 felon where the malice necessary to prove the murder conviction is depraved-heart malice . . . this means that a Class B2 sentence is only appropriate where a second-degree murder conviction hinges on the jury’s finding of depraved-heart malice.” Id. at 11. The court explained that “[h]ere . . . depraved-heart malice is not necessary—or essential—to prove [defendant’s] conviction because the jury also found that [defendant] acted with the two other forms of malice.” Id. at 11-12.