State v. Campbell, 280 N.C. App. 83, 2021-NCCOA-563 (Oct. 19, 2021)

In this Guilford County case, the trial judge improperly expressed personal opinion and injected a discussion of race in remarks to the venire during jury selection. The defendant was charged with fleeing to elude and obtaining the status of habitual felon, along with other traffic offenses. During jury voir dire, a potential juror indicated that his religious beliefs as a non-denominational Baptist prevented him from judging the defendant. In response, the trial court stated:

Okay. I’m going -- we’re going to excuse him for cause, but let me just say this, and especially to African Americans: Everyday we are in the newspaper stating we don’t get fairness in the judicial system. Every single day. But none of us -- most African Americans do not want to serve on a jury. And 90 percent of the time, it’s an African American defendant. So we walk off these juries and we leave open the opportunity for -- for juries to exist with no African American sitting on them, to give an African American defendant a fair trial. So we cannot keep complaining if we’re going to be part of the problem. Now I grew up Baptist, too. And there’s nothing about a Baptist background that says we can’t listen to the evidence and decide whether this gentleman, sitting over at this table, was treated the way he was supposed to be treated and was given -- was charged the way he was supposed to be charged. But if your -- your non-denomina[tional] Baptist tells you you can’t do that, you are now excused. Campbell Slip op. at 3.

The defendant was convicted at trial of the most serious offenses and sentenced to a minimum term of 86 months in prison. On appeal, he argued that his right to an impartial judge was violated, resulting in structural error.

To the extent this argument was not preserved at trial or by operation of law, the defendant sought to invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to obtain review. The State joined the request to suspend the normal preservation rules, and a majority of the court agreed to do so. The State further agreed that the trial judge’s comments amounted to structural error, requiring a new trial without regard to any prejudice to the defendant. The majority of the panel again agreed. In its words:

Here, the trial court’s interjection of race and religion could have negatively influenced the jury selection process. After observing the trial court admonish [the excused juror] in an address to the entire venire, other potential jurors—especially African American jurors—would likely be reluctant to respond openly and frankly to questions during jury selection regarding their ability to be fair and neutral, particularly if their concerns arose from their religious beliefs. Id. at 9.

The convictions were therefore vacated, and the matter remanded for a new trial.

Judge Dillon dissented. He would have declined to invoke Rule 2 and would have held that the trial judge’s comments, while inappropriate, did not amount to structural or otherwise reversible error.