State v. Cuthbertson, COA22-92, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Apr. 18, 2023)

In this Rowan County case, defendant argued error in overruling his objection under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986) to the prosecution peremptorily striking two black jurors. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

Defendant, a black man, reached trial in June of 2021 for charges of misdemeanor assault on a government official/employee. Relevant for the consideration of the objection, the victim of the assault was a white police officer. During jury selection, only four black potential jurors were a part of the jury pool; one black juror was struck for cause, and then the prosecutor used two peremptory challenges on two remaining black potential jurors. At this point, defense counsel objected and the trial court proceeded with the inquiry required by Batson.

The Court of Appeals reviewed defendant’s arguments, initially noting that under both the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions, the use of peremptory challenges for racially discriminatory reasons is prohibited, and courts in North Carolina apply the Batson analysis to determine if a violation occurred. Here, defendant only challenged the third step of the Batson inquiry, where the trial court determined that the prosecutor’s peremptory strikes were not motivated by discriminatory intent. Defendant also argued in the alternative that the trial court failed to sufficiently explain the basis of its ruling. 

The court found no issue with the trial court’s description of the basis for its ruling, and denied remand. Using the analogy of a scale, the court found that “[h]ere, unlike in [related Batson precedent], the trial court placed all the factors presented to it by the parties on the scale, and thus we do not need to remand.” Slip Op. at 17. The court walked through the considerations made by the trial court, including the consideration of issues not raised by either party, and satisfied itself that the trial court “adequately accounted for all the factors presented to it at Batson’s third step.” Id. at 21. 

The court then looked directly at the conclusion of no discriminatory purpose in the third step, reviewing the relevant factors to determine if the trial court committed clear error. After conducting a lengthy review spanning pages 22 to 41 of the opinion, the court concluded that "[t]he statistics of strike rates and susceptibility of the case to racial discrimination both weigh on the side of discriminatory intent,” but the lack of disparate questioning and investigation, and the race-neutral reasons given by the prosecutor for striking the jurors both weighed on the side of no discrimination. Id. at 40-41. Based on this review, the court could not find clear error to support defendant’s Batson challenge.