State v. Hobbs, 263PA18-2, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 6, 2023)

In this Cumberland County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s determination that under the inquiry established by Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), no purposeful discrimination in jury selection occurred when the state used peremptory challenges to strike three black jurors.

This matter was originally considered in State v. Hobbs (Hobbs I), 374 N.C. 345 (2020), where the Supreme Court remanded to the trial court with specific directions to conduct a hearing under the third step of the three-step Batson inquiry to determine whether defendant had proven purposeful discrimination. After the hearing, the trial court concluded defendant had not proven purposeful discrimination. In the current opinion, the Supreme Court considered whether the trial court’s conclusions were “clearly erroneous.”

The Supreme Court first noted that under both the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions the striking of potential jurors for race through peremptory challenges is forbidden, and that it has expressly adopted the Batson three-prong test for review of peremptory challenges. Here only the third prong was at issue, where the trial court “determines whether the defendant, who has the burden of proof, established that the prosecutor acted with purposeful discrimination.” Slip Op. at 4. The court then explained the basis of its review and detailed the instructions from Hobbs I for the trial court to consider when performing its analysis. Walking through the evidence for each stricken juror, the court found that the trial court considered the relevant factors and “conducted side-by-side juror comparisons of the three excused prospective jurors at issue with similarly situated prospective white jurors whom the State did not strike,” creating an analysis for each juror. Id. at 9. 

In addition to the evidence regarding specific jurors, the court pointed out that “the State’s acceptance rate of black jurors was 50% after the State excused [the last juror under consideration] which did not support a finding of purposeful discrimination.” Id. at 20. Reviewing additional evidence, the court noted that “the trial court found that the relevant history of the State’s peremptory strikes in the jurisdiction was flawed and therefore misleading.” Id. This referred to a study by Michigan State University regarding the use of peremptory strikes in North Carolina. The trial court found that all of the Batson challenges in cases referenced in the study were rejected by North Carolina appellate courts, and the study had three potential flaws: 

(1) the study identified juror characteristics without input from prosecutors, thus failing to reflect how prosecutors evaluate various characteristics; (2) recent law school graduates with little to no experience in jury selection evaluated the juror characteristics; and (3) the recent law school graduates conducted their study solely based on trial transcripts rather than assessing juror demeanor and credibility in person.

Id. at 8-9. Based on the court’s review of the entire evidence, it affirmed the trial court’s conclusion of no Batson violation. 

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Morgan, dissented, and would have found a Batson violation. Id. at 22.