State v. Campbell, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jul. 21, 2020)

This case involves a first-degree murder conviction previously upheld by the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 838 S.E.2d 660 (2020), back before the court for reconsideration in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in State v. Hobbs, ___ N.C. ___, 841 S.E.2d 492(2020), and State v. Bennett, ___ N.C. ___, 843 S.E.2d 222 (2020). 

At his murder trial, the defendant raised a Batson challenge in response to the State’s use of three of its four peremptory challenges to strike African American prospective jurors. The trial judge said that he did not find that the defendant established a prima facie case of discrimination, but he nonetheless ordered the State to give reasons for its challenges, which the State did. After hearing the State’s explanations, the trial court reiterated its finding that the defendant had not made a prima facie showing of purposeful discrimination and denied his Batson challenge. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and appealed.

The Court of Appeals first rejected the State’s motion to dismiss the appeal in light of the defendant’s failure to include in the appellate record a transcript of jury selection proceedings. At trial, the defendant’s lawyer made a motion for recordation of all proceedings, but specifically noted that she was not requesting recordation of jury selection. The appellate court concluded that the record was minimally sufficient to permit appellate review here, but emphasized that it will generally be extremely difficult for a defendant to prevail on a Batson argument without a transcript of jury selection. 

The Court of Appeals next determined that the scope of its review was limited to step one of the Batson analysis—that is, the trial judge’s finding that the defendant had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. The court distinguished this case from State v. Williams, 343 N.C. 345 (1996) (step one becomes moot when the State volunteers the reasons for its peremptory challenges before the trial court rules on whether the defendant has made a prima facie showing), and State v. Hobbs, ___ N.C. App. at ___, 841 S.E.2d at 499–501 (step one becomes moot when the trial judge rules that the defendant has not established a prima facie case but nonetheless orders the State to provide nondiscriminatory reasons for its peremptory challenges and then enters findings on those reasons). Unlike Williams, the State did not volunteer reasons before the trial court ruled on step one; the State was ordered to give reasons after the court ruled. And unlike Hobbs, the trial judge never conducted a full hearing or made findings on the State’s proffered reasons. The step one inquiry therefore was not rendered moot, and Court of Appeals majority thus considered itself precluded from consideration of the State’s proffered nondiscriminatory reasons. The court concluded that the trial court’s order addressing only step one of the inquiry was not facially deficient when that was the only step of the inquiry the trial court technically reached.

On the merits, the court concluded that based on the limited available record, the defendant had not established that the trial court erred in finding that the defendant failed to make a prima facie showing. The transcript showed only the race of the defendant and that the State used three of its four peremptory challenges to remove prospective African American jurors. It did not provide other information about the so-called Quick factors (derived from State v. Quick, 341 N.C. 141 (1995)), such as the race of the victim, the questions and statements of the prosecutor during jury selection, or the final racial composition of the jury. The court noted its concern that the State used seventy-five percent of its peremptory challenges on African American prospective jurors, but said that alone was not sufficient to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. 

A judge dissenting in part would have concluded that the rate at which the State used its peremptory challenges on African American jurors obligated the trial court to conduct a more thorough analysis of the defendant’s objection. He therefore would have remanded the case for specific findings of fact in order to permit a meaningful appellate review.