State v. Clegg, 101PA15-3

Docket Nº101PA15-3
Citation2022 NCSC 11
Case DateFebruary 11, 2022
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

2022-NCSC-11

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.

CHRISTOPHER ANTHONY CLEGG

No. 101PA15-3

Supreme Court of North Carolina

February 11, 2022


Heard in the Supreme Court on 6 October 2021.

On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of an order entered on 15 July 2019 by Judge Paul Ridgeway in Superior Court, Wake County, based on this Court's 14 August 2018 Order, 371 N.C. 443, (2018), remanding the case to the trial court in reconsideration of defendant's Batson challenge and retaining jurisdiction. On 26 February 2020, the Supreme Court allowed in part defendant's supplemental petition for discretionary review.

Joshua Stein, Attorney General, by Amy Kunstling Irene, Special Deputy Attorney General for the State-appellee.

Dylan J.C. Buffum Attorney at Law, PLLC, by Dylan J.C. Buffum, for defendant-appellant.

David Weiss and Elizabeth Hambourger, for amici curiae Common Cause and Democracy North Carolina.

HUDSON, JUSTICE.

¶ 1 Over 140 years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States held that exclusion of African Americans from juries on the basis of race violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

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Strauder v. West Virginia, 100 U.S. 303, 310 (1880). Just over a century later, in Batson v. Kentucky, that same Court established a three-step process through which courts analyze claims of racial discrimination in jury selection. 476 U.S. 79, 96-98 (1986); see Foster v. Chatman, 578 U.S. 488, 499-500 (2016) (summarizing the Batson process). Today, we must decide whether the prosecutor's exclusion of an African-American potential juror constitutes a substantive violation of the defendant's constitutional right to equal protection under Batson when the trial court found that "both race-neutral justifications offered by the prosecutor fail." We hold that it does, and therefore reverse the ruling of the trial court below, vacate defendant's conviction, and remand the case back to the trial court for any further proceedings.

I. Background

A. Jury Selection and Trial

¶ 2 On 8 April 2014, defendant Christopher A. Clegg, an African-American man, was indicted for robbery with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm by a felon. Beginning on 4 April 2016, defendant was tried by a jury in Wake County Superior Court, Judge Paul C. Ridgeway presiding. During jury selection, defense counsel raised a challenge under Batson v. Kentucky (Batson challenge) after the prosecutor used peremptory strikes to remove two African-American women from the jury: Viola Jeffreys and Gwendolyn Aubrey. 476 U.S. 79. In response, the prosecutor proffered race-neutral reasons for the strikes. Specifically, the prosecutor asserted

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that he struck Ms. Jeffreys and Ms. Aubrey "based on their body language[] and . . . their failure to look at me when I was trying to communicate with them." The prosecutor also claimed that he struck Ms. Jeffreys due to potential bias toward defendant arising from her previous employment at Dorothea Dix Hospital, and that he struck Ms. Aubrey due to her answer of "I suppose" in response to a question asking whether she could be fair and impartial. Defense counsel then argued that these reasons were pretextual. The trial court subsequently ruled that defendant had failed to establish that race was a significant factor in the peremptory strikes, and therefore overruled his Batson challenge. After the completion of jury selection and the resolution of a few other preliminary issues, the case proceeded to trial.

¶ 3 At trial, the State's evidence, as presented through several witnesses and exhibits, tended to show that in the early morning hours of 25 January 2014, defendant, brandishing a gun, robbed a sweepstakes business located at the Timber Landing Business Center in Garner, North Carolina. Defendant neither testified nor offered witnesses or evidence of his own at trial. On 6 April 2016, the jury found defendant guilty of robbery with a dangerous weapon and not guilty of possession of a firearm by a felon. Defendant was sentenced to a term of sixty-six to ninety-two months' imprisonment, with credit for 767 days of pre-trial incarceration. On 8 April 2016, defendant appealed his conviction to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

B. Court of Appeals

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¶ 4 On appeal, defendant raised two issues. First, he argued that the trial court erred by overruling his Batson challenge. Second, he argued that the trial court erred by admitting prejudicial victim impact testimony in violation of Rules 401, 402, and 403 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence. The State contended that the trial court had acted properly on both issues.

¶ 5 On 5 September 2017, in a unanimous, unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals rejected both of defendant's arguments. State v. Clegg, 2017 WL 3863494 (N.C. Ct. App. Sept. 5, 2017) (unpublished). First, the Court of Appeals considered defendant's Batson challenge. The court first summarized the three-step process of a Batson challenge:

First, the defendant must make a prima facie showing that the state exercised a race-based peremptory challenge. If the defendant makes the requisite showing, the burden shifts to the state to offer a facially valid, race-neutral explanation for the peremptory challenge. Finally, the trial court must decide whether the defendant has proved purposeful discrimination. Clegg, 2017 WL 3863494 at *2 (citing State v. Taylor, 362 N.C. 514, 527 (2008) cert. denied, 558 U.S. 851 (2009)). The Court of Appeals noted, though, that "[o]nce a prosecutor has offered a race-neutral explanation for the peremptory challenges and the trial court has ruled on the ultimate question of intentional discrimination, the preliminary issue of whether the defendant has made a prima facie showing becomes

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moot." Id. (citing State v. Bell, 359 N.C. 1, 12 (2004))

¶ 6 The Court of Appeals then reviewed the trial court's handling of defendant's Batson challenge. "Because the trial court heard the State's reasons for striking Jeffreys and Aubrey prior to making a ruling on defendant's Batson objections," thus rendering the preliminary issue of defendant's prima facie case moot for Batson purposes, the Court of Appeals moved directly to step two: reviewing the prosecution's proffered reasons for the peremptory strikes. Id. at *3. As a preliminary matter, the court "note[d] that there is a discrepancy between the State's characterization of its voir dire of Aubrey and what the transcript reveals." Id. at *4. Specifically, the court noted that while the prosecutor's given rationale for striking Ms. Aubrey claimed that she had answered "I suppose" to a question about whether she could be fair and impartial, the transcript reveals that she actually gave that answer to a question about whether she was confident that she would be able to focus on the trial. Consequently, the court "review[ed] the State's argument in light of this clarification." Id. The court subsequently ruled that "[t]he State's concerns of both Jeffreys' and Aubrey's failure to make eye contact and their ability to be fair and focused on the trial constitute neutral explanations for each peremptory strike." Accordingly, the court found "no discriminatory intent inherent in the State's explanations and thus agree[d] with the trial court's determination that the State's justifications were race neutral." Id.

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¶ 7 The Court of Appeals then "move[d] to the third step of the Batson inquiry and consider[ed] whether the trial court erred by finding that there was no Batson error." Id. at *11. Here, the court noted defendant's argument that the proffered reasoning regarding Aubrey's ability to focus was revealed as pretextual because a white juror, David Williams, also indicated that he might be distracted from the trial due to work concerns. But "[t]he distinguishing factor between Aubrey and David Williams[, ]" the court ruled, "appears to be the State's additional stated bases for striking Aubrey[:] . . . her body language and failure to make eye contact." Id. The court likewise dismissed defendant's argument that the prosecutor's proffered reasoning for striking Ms. Jeffreys―her previous employment at Dorothea Dix, a psychiatric hospital―was pretextual. Specifically, the court ruled that because "there was a competency evaluation of defendant ordered and defense counsel stated that she had also requested an in-custody evaluation of the defendant[, ] . . . the State's basis for striking Jeffreys due to her work history is rationally related to defendant's potential competency issues." Id. "Moreover, [the court] note[d, ] . . . the State explained that it also exercised its peremptory strike on Jeffreys based on her body language and failure to make eye contact." Id. "As such," the court found that "defendant has failed to carry his burden of proving purposeful discrimination[, ]" and therefore held that "defendant's Batson challenge was properly denied." Id. at *6.

¶ 8 Second, the Court of Appeals likewise ruled that the trial court did not commit

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plain error by admitting the victim impact testimony of Patrice Williams, who was present at the robbery. Id. at *6-7. Because defendant does not raise this issue before this Court, we do not consider it further here. In sum, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court committed no error. Id. at *7.

C. Special Order and Batson Rehearing

¶ 9 On 10 October 2017, defendant filed a notice of appeal with this Court under N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(1), asserting that the case presented a substantial constitutional question under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution and Article I Sections 19 (equal protection) and 26 (jury service) of the North Carolina Constitution. In response, the State filed a motion to dismiss defendant's appeal for lack of a substantial constitutional question. Also on 10 October 2017,...

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