For Immediate Release: October 4, 2021
For More Information Contact: Gretchen Engel, CDPL Executive Director, 919-682-3983
Raleigh, NC — North Carolina is the only southern state whose appellate courts have never once enforced the law prohibiting race discrimination against jurors of color. But that could be about to change. On Oct. 6, the N.C. Supreme Court will hear arguments in State v. Clegg, a case that offers the opportunity to address the unfair exclusion of Black citizens from jury service.
The case involves Christopher Clegg, who was convicted of armed robbery in 2016, but it’s not the facts of the crime that are at issue. Clegg has already finished serving his sentence. Instead, the case hinges on whether the prosecutor illegally removed a Black woman from the jury because of her race.
“This case is a key test for our Supreme Court,” said Gretchen M. Engel, executive director of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, which works to end jury discrimination. “It’s a constitutional right to serve on a jury and to have a voice in the criminal justice system. Yet, people of color are still being systematically excluded from juries. Given what we know today about the corrosive effects of racism on the criminal justice system, we should be welcoming rather than excluding the voices of jurors of color.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1987, in Batson v. Kentucky, that it is illegal to exclude qualified citizens from juries based on race. Yet, studies show that in North Carolina, prosecutors continue to strike qualified Black jurors at more than twice the rate of whites. And the state’s high court has yet to enforce the simple rule laid out in Batson.
“Courts across the South, in states like Mississippi and Alabama, have found discrimination against jurors of color on multiple occasions,” said Jin Hee Lee, the senior deputy director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., and a member of CDPL’s board of directors. “There is simply no excuse for North Carolina to remain an outlier in its complete failure to protect jurors of color against discriminatory strikes. It is imperative for the North Carolina Supreme Court to take this opportunity to turn the tide and send a strong message that discrimination will no longer be tolerated.”
In Clegg, the prosecutor moved to strike a qualified Black juror. When the defense objected, saying there was no reason for the strike other than the juror’s race, the prosecutor had a chance to give “race-neutral” reasons for his strike. The prosecutor said he did not like the juror’s “body language” and that she said she “supposed” she could be fair, indicating that she was unsure.
The trial judge accepted the prosecutor’s reasons and allowed the prosecutor to dismiss the woman from the jury. However, neither of the prosecutor’s reasons held up to scrutiny. There was no support for the vague claim about the juror’s body language or failure to make eye contact, which is a frequent excuse that prosecutors make for their strikes of Black jurors.
The prosecutor was simply incorrect about the juror being unsure about her own fairness. In truth, she said she “supposed” she could set aside her other responsibilities and serve on the jury. Meanwhile, a white juror who was questioned at the same time as the Black juror said that he would be distracted by his busy job, yet the prosecutor accepted him.
“Often, it seems like our courts are waiting for prosecutors to make openly racist statements in court before enforcing the law,” Engel said. “But this kind of discrimination operates much more subtly. If the courts accept flimsy excuses for excluding Black jurors, they’re allowing discrimination. In this case, the prosecutor didn’t provide a single valid reason for his strike. That’s unacceptable.”
Oral arguments will be held in the N.C. Supreme Court at 10:45 a.m. on Wednesday, October 6. Watch here.