May 4, 2020
Raleigh, NC — A new decision from the North Carolina Supreme Court has taken an important first step to address a problem that civil rights advocates have long highlighted: the epidemic of race-based exclusion of black citizens from jury service in North Carolina.
In the case of Cedric Hobbs, the court ruled 6 to 1 Friday that the judge at Hobbs’ 2014 murder trial allowed the prosecutor to strike African American citizens from the jury without fully considering the evidence that race was a key factor in their strikes.
The decision marks a turning point in North Carolina, where two separate studies have found that qualified black citizens are struck from juries at more than twice the rate of qualified white citizens. It will begin a culture change in a state where trial judges routinely dismiss complaints of racially motivated jury strikes without thorough investigation, and where the appellate courts have never in their history upheld a claim of race discrimination against a juror of color.
“For a long time, our courts have stood by as scores of black citizens have been denied the basic civil right to serve on a jury,” said David Weiss, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. “The North Carolina Supreme Court has just said that has to change.”
The decision established that, when claims of race discrimination against jurors are raised, judges must take into consideration the history of disproportionate strikes in that county. For instance, in Cumberland County where Hobbs was tried, studies show that prosecutors were about 2.5 times more likely to strike qualified potential jurors who were black, a statistically significant finding.
The courts also must compare the strikes of black jurors to those of white jurors, to see if they are held to similar standards. For example, at Hobbs’ trial, the defense alleged that the prosecutor struck a black juror based on his race. When the judge asked the prosecutor to state his reasons for the strike, the prosecutor claimed he struck the juror because the juror had experience with mental health professionals. The judge accepted this reason as “race neutral” without considering the fact that several white jurors who the prosecutor accepted had received extensive mental health treatment. Such comparative juror analysis is key to rooting out discriminatory intent in jury strikes.
Cedric Hobbs was convicted of robbery and murder in 2014 and is serving a sentence of life without parole. His case will now return to a Cumberland County trial court for a new hearing on whether black jurors were unlawfully excluded from his jury. If the court finds that they were unfairly struck, he will get a new trial.
However, legal experts say the salient aspect of the decision is the precedent it sets for future cases.
“What’s most important is the message that courts across North Carolina must vigorously investigate the reasons why jurors of color are excluded, not simply rubber stamp the prosecutor’s strikes,” said James E. Coleman, Jr., John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, Director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, and Co-Director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law School. “This decision is a good starting point in addressing North Carolina’s shameful record of denying African Americans their civil right to serve on juries. These issues will continue to come up. As they do, my hope is that the state supreme court will continue to take this civil rights problem seriously, by enforcing and strengthening legal protections against race discrimination.”