State v. Crump, 376 N.C. 375 (Dec. 18, 2020)

The defendant was indicted for multiple charges of armed robbery, kidnapping, possession of firearm by a felon, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, and assaulting a law enforcement officer with a firearm. The charges arose out of the robbery of an illegal poker game and the intended robbery of a second game. The second game was a set-up by one of the victims from the first game, who called 911 when the robbers arrived. Officers responding to the 911 call encountered the defendant in a car parked outside the office complex where the fake game was to be held, and a shootout ensued. The defendant was apprehended after a low-speed chase involving several law-enforcement agencies, and went to trial on all charges. Three of the charges were dismissed at trial by the court, and the jury acquitted the defendant of two others, but he was convicted of the remaining charges and received thirteen consecutive judgments totaling 872 to 1,203 months incarceration. The defendant appealed his conviction. A more detailed summary of the facts of this case and a discussion of the Court of Appeals’ holding regarding the application of the statutory felony disqualification provisions to the defendant’s self-defense claims can be found here: John Rubin, “A Lose-Lose Situation for ‘Felonious’ Defendants Who Act in Self-Defense,” N.C. Criminal Law Blog, May 1, 2018.

The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the conviction, but the state Supreme Court granted discretionary review to consider whether the trial court erred by restricting the defendant’s voir dire of prospective jurors on issues of race, implicit bias, and police shootings of black men. Concluding that the “the trial court did abuse its discretion and that the trial court’s improper restrictions on defendant’s questioning during voir dire did prejudice defendant,” the higher court reversed the conviction.

During voir dire, the trial court sustained objections to the defendant’s attempts to ask prospective jurors about “the possibility that they harbored racial biases against African Americans” as well as “their awareness of a case that had recently occurred in Charlotte where a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man.” On appeal, the defense argued that the questions were relevant to determine whether jurors could be unbiased and fair, while the state argued that the questions were an improper attempt to “stake out” the jurors and secure a forecast of how they would vote. The Supreme Court acknowledged that trial courts have broad discretion to restrict the manner and extent of questioning prospective jurors, but concluded that the trial court erred in this case when it “flatly prohibited” and “categorically denied” all questions about race, bias, and officer shootings of black men. The proposed questions were not an attempt to stake out the jurors, but rather an attempt to determine if any jurors had opinions or biases that would impact their ability to decide the facts of the case. Additionally, since the case involved a dispute over whether the defendant or the officers fired first, as well as what inferences to draw from the defendant’s refusal to immediately surrender after the shooting, the error was prejudicial because it impacted the defendant’s ability to identify and challenge any jurors who “might struggle to fairly and impartially determine whose testimony to credit, whose version of events to believe, and, ultimately, whether or not to find defendant guilty.” Because it held that the exclusion of these issues during voir dire was prejudicial error warranting reversal, the Supreme Court did not reach the remaining issue of whether there must be a causal nexus between the use of defensive force and the felonious conduct that would bar a self-defense claim under G.S. 14-51.4. 

Justice Davis dissented, joined by Justices Newby and Morgan. The dissent would have held that the limited series of questions rejected by the trial court did not establish that all inquiry into issues of potential juror bias was prohibited, and also would have found that the only reason offered at trial for these questions was to gauge how jurors might assess the defendant’s state of mind while fleeing the scene, rather than for the purpose of identifying potential bias on the part of the jurors as argued on appeal. The majority responded that both issues were addressed by viewing the questions in context and considering the entire record of the voir dire.