The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday overturned a black man’s robbery conviction, determining that prosecutors wrongly blocked a potential juror from his trial due to racial bias.
The 4-3 ruling marks the first time in state history, according to court authorities, that a criminal conviction has been overturned due to a prosecutor’s unlawful exclusion of a black juror through a process developed by the United States Supreme Court in 1986.
“We are so relieved to see our state’s highest court finally recognize this significant civil rights violation,” said Elizabeth Hamburger of the Center for Death Penalty Litigation, calling discrimination against black jurors “rampant” in the state. . She argued for defendant Christopher Anthony Clegg in lower court and assisted with the appeal.
In 2016, 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 was granted parole in August, according to correctional records.
Clegg’s case hinged on the use of what’s called a “Batson challenge” because Clegg’s attorney believed during his trial that two potential jurors — both black — had been fired by prosecutors due to of their race. When a judge accepts such a recusal, the prosecutor must then present a “racially neutral” ground for dismissal.
According to Friday’s decision, the two black jurors were just three people of color from a pool of 22 potential jurors for Clegg’s trial. He was accused of robbing a Wake County sweepstakes parlor in 2014 by pointing a gun at a female employee’s stomach and neck.
A potential juror, Gwendolyn Aubrey, was ruled out by a prosecutor who cited her body language and a lack of eye contact. The prosecutor also mentioned her “I guess” answer in response to a question asking if she could be fair and impartial.
Analyzing the challenge to the two jurors’ dismissals, Wake Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway ruled that Clegg’s attorney 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 mischaracterized the interaction with Aubrey in court. According to the court transcript, she actually answered “I guess” when asked if she was confident she could focus on the trial.
First, the state Supreme Court asked the trial court to reconsider the challenges in light of a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
In 2019, Ridgeway said both racially neutral justifications against Aubrey failed scrutiny, citing in part the prosecutor’s “erroneous brief” on the matter. But the judge still said he could not find that the state had “engaged in ‘deliberate discrimination.'”
Associate Judge Robin Hudson, writing Friday’s leading opinion, said Ridgeway erred in subjecting Clegg to an “unduly high burden of proof.”
The judge also should have given more consideration to the disparate questioning between potential white and black jurors, according to Hudson. Aubrey was the only one of 15 to receive follow-up questioning about his ability to focus on the case.
Associate Judge Anita Earls wrote another opinion, saying she would also have called off the preemptive strike by the other black juror’s panel. The state had justified his dismissal in part because of his previous employment at a public psychiatric hospital. Clegg had mental health issues, in his opinion.
“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 judges said they would have upheld Ridgeway’s ruling, which in turn would have left the conviction untouched.
Associate Judge Phil Berger Jr., a former district attorney writing the dissenting opinion, said the majority refused to show deference to Ridgeway, who as a trial judge was uniquely placed to review the evidence. Instead, Berger wrote, the other four judges reached the wrong conclusion based on the prosecutor’s erroneous comments on the matter to Aubrey.
“The flawed explanation provided by the prosecutor cannot, by definition, be willful discrimination,” Berger wrote, adding that there was no doubt about Clegg’s guilt.
Earls’ opinion cited a 2016 law review article that the state Supreme Court had ruled on 81 complaints from defendants alleging racial discrimination against minority jurors since 1986. None of the cases had resulted in a violation of Batson. Earls said that was still the case until Friday.
Hamburger, the lawyer who helped Clegg, said in an interview late Friday that she was not immediately aware of any recourse Clegg might take to remedy the prison sentence he has served. Although the conviction was overturned, she said, the Wake County District Attorney is yet to formally take action to dismiss the charges against Clegg.