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.