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NC Supreme Court Considers Racial Discrimination in Jury Box

In the case Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision made it illegal to exclude jurors on the basis of race. (Adobe Stock)
In the case Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision made it illegal to exclude jurors on the basis of race. (Adobe Stock)
February 5, 2020

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The North Carolina Supreme Court this week heard oral arguments in the cases of Cory Bennett of Sampson County and Cedric Hobbs of Cumberland County. Attorneys for the two men argued that prosecutors excluded black citizens from the defendants' juries because of their race.

David Weiss, senior staff attorney for the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, said if the court finds that racial discrimination played a key role in removing jurors, the men may receive new trials.

"So, if the court finds that there was race discrimination against black jurors or jurors of color in these two cases," he said, "it would be the first time in the history of our state that our court has recognized the problem of race discrimination in jury selection."

Weiss said the court should reach a decision in coming months. A 2018 analysis found that North Carolina's high courts largely have failed to enforce a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred racially motivated jury exclusion.

In the more than 30 years since the 1986 law, Weiss said, more than 100 North Carolina defendants have raised claims of discrimination against jurors of color.

"There are multiple studies in our state, which have looked at hundreds of cases -- have looked at decisions to remove thousands of jurors -- and have found that black jurors are removed by prosecutors at twice the rate that white jurors and all other jurors are removed," he said.

Durham County District Attorney Satana Deberry said this is a problem that everyone in the justice system, including prosecutors, needs to address.

"Doing trainings around our own racial bias, around the ways in which racial bias may impact the decisions that we make in picking jurors," she said, "and that just even having vocalized that to our attorneys, and having them keep on the top of their mind, I think has made a difference."

Other states including Connecticut, Nevada and Washington have taken recent steps to address racial discrimination in the jury box, including reversing convictions marred by racial bias, crafting new legal approaches and appointing commissions to study jury discrimination.

Legal documents for the two cases are online at google.com, and the 2018 analysis is at nacdl.org.

Disclosure: Center for Death Penalty Litigation contributes to our fund for reporting. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Nadia Ramlagan, Public News Service - NC