State v. Hobbs, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May. 1, 2020)

The defendant was tried capitally in Cumberland County and convicted of first-degree murder (among other offenses). On appeal, he argued the trial court erred in denying his Batson challenges to three peremptory strikes used by the State against black jurors during jury selection. The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed (here). On discretionary review, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed in a 6-1 divided opinion.

Under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), when a defendant objects that the State has struck a juror for racially discriminatory reasons, the court undertakes a three-step hearing. First, the court determines whether the defendant made a prima facia showing that the exercise of the peremptory strike was discriminatory. The defendant meets that hurdle “by showing that the totality of the relevant facts give rise to an inference of racial discrimination [and] is not intended to be a high hurdle . . .” Slip op. at 8-9. At this stage, the defendant’s burden is one of production, not persuasion. If the defendant meets that burden, the State must then provide a race-neutral justification for the use of the strike. If the State provides facially neutral explanations, then the court proceeds to the third step, allowing the defendant an opportunity to rebut the State’s explanation and show purposeful discrimination by the State in its exercise of the strike.  At this stage, the court must consider all of the evidence and determine whether the prosecution’s use of the strike “was motivated in substantial part by discriminatory intent.” Id. at 12.

(1) As to the defendant’s first two Batson objections, the trial court ruled against the defendant at the first stage, finding that he did not make a prima facia case. However, the trial court proceeded to the second and third steps of the analysis, asking the State to justify its use of the strikes and then denying the Batson challenge on the merits. The Court of Appeals held that the issue of whether the defendant made a prima facia case was not moot and agreed with the trial court that a prima facia case had not been established. This was error, as that issue was moot. See, e.g. State v. Robinson, 330 N.C. 1, 17 (1991) (so holding). “When the trial court has already ruled that a defendant failed in his ultimate burden of proving purposeful discrimination, there is no reason to consider whether the defendant has met the lesser burden of establishing a prima facia case of discrimination.” Hobbs slip op. at 13 (citations omitted). These circumstances were distinguishable from other cases cited in the Court of Appeals decision where the trial court ruled on the first step but did not conduct a complete Batson analysis.

(2) The trial court and the Court of Appeals failed to properly weigh the defendant’s evidence of purposeful discrimination. As to the first two challenges, the Court of Appeals did not consider purposeful discrimination at all, ruling only that the defendant did not make a prima facia showing. Since that issue was moot, the Court of Appeals should have conducted a full Batson analysis. While the trial court purported to conduct a “full hearing” on the Batson claims for the first two challenged jurors, its analysis of purposeful discrimination also failed to consider all of the evidence. The trial court noted the races of the defendant, the victims, and witnesses, and observed that the State had used three-fourths of its peremptory challenges on black venire members. It also noted that the defendant had exercised nearly half of his peremptory challenges to excuse black venire members. The trial court listed the State’s race-neutral justifications and stated that it “considered” the defendant’s argument that comparative answers between jurors struck and jurors kept by the State rebutted those justifications. It concluded no discrimination had occurred and did not specifically address the defendant’s argument regarding historical evidence of discrimination in jury selection in the county. Multiple errors in this analysis required a new Batson hearing.

One, the defendant’s use of peremptory challenges is irrelevant to determining the State’s intention in striking the juror, and it was improper for the trial court to consider that evidence. Second, the trial court failed to address all of the defendant’s evidence of discriminatory intent, including evidence of a pattern of historical discrimination in voir dire within the county. Without explaining how this evidence was weighed, the trial court’s analysis was incomplete. Finally, the trial court erred by failing to conduct comparative analysis of the answers of the jurors struck and of those passed on by the State. The trial court examined the different questions asked by the State of the jurors but failed to meaningfully compare the jurors’ answers in response. Evidence in the record suggested that white jurors passed by the State gave answers similar to those given by similar black jurors who were excused by the State. This was relevant and should have been addressed. In the court’s words:

Evidence about similar answers between similarly situated white and nonwhite jurors is relevant to whether the prosecutor’s stated reasons for exercising a peremptory strike are mere pretext for racial discrimination.  Potential jurors do not need to be identical in every regard for this to be true. ‘If a prosecutor’s proffered reason for striking a black panelist applies just as well to an otherwise-similar nonblack who is permitted to serve, that is evidence tending to prove purposeful discrimination to be considered at Batson’s third step’. Id. at 21-22 (citations omitted).

These errors required reversal and remand to the trial court for new hearing. The same errors affected the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s third Batson claim. On remand, the trial court was instructed to conduct another Batson hearing as to all three claims, taking into account the totality of the evidence, including comparative analysis of juror answers and the historical evidence regarding racial discrimination. The trial court was further instructed to make findings of fact and conclusions of law, and to certify its order to the North Carolina Supreme Court within 60 days or “within such time as the current state of emergency allows.” Id. at 24.

Justice Newby dissented and would have affirmed the trial court and Court of Appeals. [Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, Emily Coward blogged about this case, here.]