RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina's Supreme Court overturned the robbery conviction of a Black man on Friday, determining that prosecutors wrongly blocked a potential juror from his trial based on racial bias.
The 4-3 ruling marks the first time in state history, according to legal authorities, that a criminal conviction was invalidated because of a prosecutor's unlawful exclusion of a Black juror through a process developed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986.
“We are so relieved to see our state’s highest court finally acknowledge this important violation of civil rights," said Elizabeth Hambourger with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, calling the discrimination against Black jurors “rampant ” in the state. She argued for defendant Christopher Anthony Clegg in a lower court and assisted with the appeal.
In 2016, the jurors hearing Clegg's criminal trial found him guilty of robbery with a dangerous weapon. Now 27, Clegg served more than four years in prison and completed parole in August, according to correction records.
Clegg's case hinged on the use of what's called a “Batson challenge” because Clegg's counsel believed during his trial that two potential female jurors — both Black — were dismissed by prosecutors due to their race. When a judge accepts such a challenge, the prosecutor then must present a “race-neutral” reason for dismissal.
According to Friday's ruling, the two Black jurors were among only three people of color within a prospective jury pool of 22 for Clegg's trial. He was accused of robbing a Wake County sweepstakes parlor in 2014 while pointing a gun at an employee's stomach and on her neck.
One potential juror, Gwendolyn Aubrey, was excluded by a prosecutor who cited her body language and a lack of eye contact. The prosecutor also mentioned her answer of “I suppose” in response to a question asking whether she could be fair and impartial.
Analyzing the challenge of the two jurors' dismissals, Wake Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled that Clegg's counsel had failed to establish that race was a significant factor in the peremptory strikes.
The state Court of Appeals upheld Ridgeway's decision in 2017, even when it was made clear that a prosecutor had mischaracterized in court the interaction with Aubrey. According to the court transcript, she actually had responded "I suppose,” to the question of whether she was confident that she could focus on the trial.
At first, the state Supreme Court told the trial court to reexamine the challenges in light of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
In 2019, Ridgeway declared that the two race-neutral justifications against Aubrey failed scrutiny, citing in part the prosecutor's “misremembering" of the question. But still the judge said he couldn't conclude that the state had "engaged in ‘purposeful discrimination.’”
Associate Justice Robin Hudson, writing Friday's prevailing opinion, said Ridgeway got it wrong by holding Clegg to an “improperly high burden of proof.”
The judge also should have better considered the disparate questioning between white and Black potential jurors, according to Hudson. Aubrey was the only one among 15 who received follow-up questioning about an ability to focus on the case.
Associate Justice Anita Earls wrote another opinion, saying she also would have overturned the preemptive strike from the jury pool of the other Black juror. The state had justified removing her in part because of her previous employment at a state mental hospital. Clegg had mental health issues, her opinion says.
“When racial bias infects jury selection, it is an affront to individual dignity and removes important voices from the justice system,” Earls wrote.
The court's three Republican justices said they would have upheld Ridgeway's ruling, which in turn would have left the conviction intact.
Associate Justice Phil Berger Jr., a former district attorney writing the dissenting opinion, said the majority refused to give deference to Ridgeway, who as a trial judge was uniquely positioned to review the evidence. Instead, Berger wrote, the other four justices jumped to the wrong conclusion based on the prosecutor's mistaken comments about the question to Aubrey.
“The mistaken explanation provided by the prosecutor cannot, by definition, be purposeful discrimination,” Berger wrote, adding there was no doubt to Clegg's guilt.
Earls' opinion cited a 2016 law review article that said the state Supreme Court had adjudicated 81 claims of criminal defendants alleging racial discrimination against minority jurors since 1986. None of the cases had resulted in a Batson violation. Earls said that had still been the case until Friday.
Hambourger, the lawyer who assisted Clegg, said late Friday in an interview that she wasn’t immediately aware of any recourse Clegg could take to address the prison sentence he served. While the conviction was vacated, she said, the Wake County district attorney still would have to formally act to dismiss charges against Clegg.