State v. Cofield, 789A85

Citation320 N.C. 297,357 S.E.2d 622
Decision Date07 July 1987
Docket NumberNo. 789A85,789A85
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Ernest Richard COFIELD.

Lacy H. Thornburg, Atty. Gen. by Joan H. Byers, Sp. Deputy Atty. Gen., and John H. Watters, Asst. Atty. Gen., Raleigh, for the State.

Malcolm Ray Hunter, Jr., Appellate Defender by Daniel R. Pollitt, Asst. Appellate Defender, Raleigh, for defendant.

EXUM, Chief Justice.

The questions presented are: (1) whether racial discrimination in selection of the grand jury foreman involved in this case would vitiate defendant's indictment and conviction, and (2) whether defendant has made out a prima facie case of such discrimination in the proceedings against him. We answer both questions affirmatively, reverse the Court of Appeals, and remand the case for a hearing so the state may have an opportunity to rebut defendant's prima facie case.

I.

The state's evidence at trial tended to show that on 25 June 1984 defendant forced his way into the victim's home and dragged her into a bedroom, where he raped her and then choked her until she lost consciousness. Defendant's evidence tended to establish an alibi.

Defendant moved before trial to dismiss his indictment, claiming that racial discrimination in the selection of grand jury foremen in Northampton County violated his rights under the state and federal constitutions. Defendant's evidence at a hearing on his motion included 1980 census figures showing that approximately sixty-one percent of the population of Northampton County is black. He also introduced a report prepared by Mr. R.J. White, Northampton County's Clerk of Superior Court, listing all who had served as grand jury foreman since 1960 by name, race, and sex. 1 This report showed that only one black person had served as grand jury foreman in the period from 1960 until the trial. The black foreman served two six-month terms beginning in July 1979. The Clerk of Court, who had occupied that position since 1966, testified that in his opinion the racial composition of grand juries since 1968 generally reflected that of the county.

Mr. White further testified that he and other court officials advised the presiding judge on selection of grand jury foremen. He could not recall whether a judge ever had consulted any black person during this process, but he denied knowledge of any presiding judge's refusal to consider a person because of his race.

Judge Allsbrook, without making specific findings, denied defendant's motion to dismiss the indictment. Defendant was then tried, convicted, and sentenced to consecutive terms of thirty years for second degree rape and three years for felonious breaking and entering.

In his appeal to the Court of Appeals, defendant contended that the trial court erred in failing to dismiss the indictment against him because the racially discriminatory process of selecting grand jury foremen in Northampton County violated his right to equal protection of the law under the North Carolina and United States Constitutions. A majority of the Court of Appeals' panel rejected defendant's argument, holding that "the evidence of discrimination in the record is [insufficient] to require us to reverse a conviction." State v. Cofield, 77 N.C.App. at 701, 336 S.E.2d at 440. The Court of Appeals' majority opinion acknowledged the uncontradicted evidence showing that sixty-one percent of Northampton County is black, as well as evidence indicating that during the preceding eighteen years only one black person had served as grand jury foreman. Id. at 702, 336 S.E.2d at 440. The court held, however, that because the record in the instant case did not reflect the total number of persons who served as grand jury foremen over the relevant time period, it was impossible to calculate whether defendant had established a statistical case of discrimination. 2 Id., 336 S.E.2d at 441.

Judge Becton, believing defendant had made out a prima facie case of discrimination, dissented.

II.

In North Carolina, one member of each impaneled grand jury is chosen by the presiding superior court judge to serve as foreman. N.C.G.S. § 15A-622(e) (1983). Defendant argues that he was denied equal protection of the law as guaranteed by the state and federal constitutions because of racial discrimination in selection of the foreman of the grand jury that indicted him. He does not complain of racial discrimination in selection of the grand jury as a whole. Thus, the initial question we face is whether racial discrimination in the selection of a grand jury foreman from a panel of grand jurors selected in a nondiscriminatory manner infringes upon any constitutional right. For the following reasons we conclude that such discrimination violates Article I, sections 19 and 26 of the North Carolina Constitution. These provisions, individually and together, constitute adequate and independent state grounds for our decision in this case. See Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032, 103 S.Ct. 3469, 77 L.Ed.2d 1201 (1983). Defendant's claims under the federal constitution will, however, be discussed in Part III of this opinion.

A.

This Court has long recognized the wrong inherent in jury proceedings tainted by racial discrimination. Eighty-five years ago, in a case decided under the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, we said:

It is incomprehensible that while all white persons entitled to jury trials have only white jurors selected by the authorities to pass upon their conduct and their rights, and the negro has no such privilege, the negro can be said to have equal protection with the white man. How can the forcing of a negro to submit to a criminal trial by a jury drawn from a list from which has been excluded the whole of his race purely and simply because of color, although possessed of the requisite qualifications prescribed by the law, be defended? Is not such a proceeding a denial to him of equal legal protection[?] There can be but one answer, and that is that it is an unlawful discrimination.

State v. Peoples, 131 N.C. 784, 790, 42 S.E. 814, 816 (1902).

Since these words were penned, we have made it clear that purposeful exclusion of citizens from grand jury service on the basis of race violates not only the federal constitution, but the equal protection guarantees of our state constitution as well. See, e.g., State v. Covington, 258 N.C. 495, 128 S.E.2d 822 (1963); State v. Perry, 248 N.C. 334, 103 S.E.2d 404 (1958); see also North Carolina Advisory Committee, Equal Protection of the Laws in North Carolina 59 (1962). Covington and Perry, of course, were decided at a time when the state constitution's guarantee of equal protection was merely implicit in the document. See S.S. Kresge Co. v. Davis, 277 N.C. 654, 178 S.E.2d 382 (1971). In 1970, North Carolina's commitment to equal protection was made explicit. Article I, section 19 of the state constitution now provides that "[n]o person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws; nor shall any person be subjected to discrimination by the State because of race, color, religion, or national origin."

Article I, section 26 of the North Carolina Constitution is even more pertinent to the question presented in this case. Adopted in 1970 in conjunction with the equal protection language quoted above, this provision states that "[n]o person shall be excluded from jury service on account of sex, race, color, religion, or national origin."

Article I, section 26 does more than protect individuals from unequal treatment. 3 The people of North Carolina have declared in this provision that they will not tolerate the corruption of their juries by racism, sexism and similar forms of irrational prejudice. They have recognized that the judicial system of a democratic society must operate evenhandedly if it is to command the respect and support of those subject to its jurisdiction. It must also be perceived to operate evenhandedly. Racial discrimination in the selection of grand and petit jurors deprives both an aggrieved defendant and other members of his race of the perception that he has received equal treatment at the bar of justice. Such discrimination thereby undermines the judicial process. Cf. State v. Mettrick, 305 N.C. 383, 385, 289 S.E.2d 354, 356 (1982) ("the appearance of a fair trial before an impartial jury is as important as the fact of such a trial").

Exclusion of a racial group from jury service, moreover, entangles the courts in a web of prejudice and stigmatization. To single out blacks and deny them the opportunity to participate as jurors in the administration of justice--even though they are fully qualified--is to put the courts' imprimatur on attitudes that historically have prevented blacks from enjoying equal protection of the law.

Discrimination in the selection of grand jury foremen is no less wrong, and no less contrary to the letter and spirit of our constitution, than discrimination in the selection of jurors generally. This is so even if there was no discrimination in the impaneling of the grand jury from which the foreman was selected. The foreman, by his very title, is distinguished from other members of the grand jury. As the titular head of the grand jury, the foreman is first among equals, both in the eyes of his fellow jurors and in the eyes of the public. Because the foreman is thus set apart, it is as important to ensure racial neutrality in the selection of this officer as it is to avoid racial discrimination in the selection of grand and petit jurors generally. We conclude, therefore, that racial discrimination in the selection of grand jury foremen violates Article I, sections 19 and 26 of the North Carolina Constitution, irrespective of whether there was discrimination in selection of the grand jury itself.

B.

We turn now to the appropriate remedy for violations of these constitutional guarantees. The state argues that defendant's indictment need not be vitiated, nor the...

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    ..."[n]o person shall be excluded from jury service on account of sex, race, color, religion, or national origin." In State v. Cofield, 320 N.C. 297, 357 S.E.2d 622 (1987), a case involving racial discrimination in the selection of a grand jury foreman, we explained in detail the purposes serv......
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