State v. Bennett, 374 N.C. 579 (Jun. 5, 2020)

The defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and multiple drug crimes including drug trafficking. During jury selection, the State peremptorily challenged two potential jurors who were black before accepting a white juror. The defendant made a Batson motion, arguing that there was no basis aside from race for excusing the first two jurors. The trial court concluded that the defendant had not made a prima facie showing of racial discrimination, noting in particular that the State had “excused two, but kept three African Americans.” The defendant was convicted and appealed. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court, holding that the defendant failed to make a prima facie case that the State’s challenges were racially motivated. State v. Bennett, 262 N.C. App. 89 (2018).

On discretionary review, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals. As a preliminary matter, the Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the record contained sufficient information about the relevant jurors’ race to permit a substantive review of the defendant’s Batson claim. There was no dispute among counsel for the parties or the trial judge concerning the racial identity of the relevant jurors, resulting in what amounts to a stipulation to their racial identity. The Court then concluded that the Court of Appeals erred in upholding the trial court’s rejection of the defendant’s Batson claim. After noting that a numerical analysis of strike patterns with respect to race is not necessarily dispositive, the Court said that the pattern here—where the State had challenged two of five African American prospective jurors but no white jurors, and where all of the State’s peremptory challenges were used to excuse black prospective jurors—was sufficient to raise an inference of purposeful discrimination when there was no other immediately obvious justification for the challenges. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the State’s acceptance rate for African American prospective jurors (three out of five) was higher than in many previous cases affirming trial court findings of no purposeful discrimination. Those cases included other distinguishing facts beyond the acceptance rate, such as the State using peremptory challenge on at least one white prospective juror, or a juror expressing reservations about the death penalty. Having found that the trial court erred at step one of the Batson analysis, the Court remanded the matter for a hearing to complete the second and third steps of the required analysis.

Justice Newby dissented, writing that the defendant did not preserve the race of the jurors for the record, and that Court therefore should not have reached the merits of his claim. And even if the issue had been preserved, he would have concluded that the trial court did not clearly err.