State v. Hobbs, No. 263PA18

CitationNo. 263PA18
Case DateMay 01, 2020
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina


No. 263PA18


May 1, 2020

On discretionary review pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, 260 N.C. App. 394, 817 S.E.2d 779 (2018), finding no error after appeal from judgments entered on 18 December 2014 by Judge Robert F. Floyd in Superior Court, Cumberland County. Heard in the Supreme Court on 3 February 2020.

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

Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Sterling Rozear, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellant.

Donald H. Beskind, Robert S. Chang, and Taki V. Flevaris for Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, amicus curiae.

David Weiss, James E. Coleman Jr., and Elizabeth Hambourger for Coalition of State and National Criminal Justice and Civil Rights Advocates, amici curiae.

EARLS, Justice.

Cedric Theodis Hobbs Jr. is an African-American male who was indicted for the murder of a young white man and for a further eight additional felonies including

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armed robbery and kidnapping against three other white victims. Before trial, Mr. Hobbs filed a motion pursuant to the Racial Justice Act which included information about prior capital cases in Cumberland County. During jury selection in his capital trial, Mr. Hobbs made a number of objections arguing that the State was exercising its peremptory challenges in a racially discriminatory manner. He pursues two of these objections in arguments before this Court. At the time of his final objection, the State had used eight out of eleven of its peremptory challenges against black jurors. While it had accepted eight and excused eight black jurors at that time, the State had accepted twenty and excused two white jurors.

On 12 December 2014, Mr. Hobbs was found guilty of one count of first-degree murder by malice, premeditation and deliberation, and also under the felony murder rule; two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon; two counts of attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon; and one count of felonious conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the first-degree murder conviction and one count of attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, as well as three consecutive sentences of 73 to 97 months for each of the two convictions for robbery with a dangerous weapon and for the other attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon conviction. Mr. Hobbs was also sentenced to 29 to 44 months for conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon.

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Mr. Hobbs appealed to the Court of Appeals. On appeal, he argued that the trial court should have accepted his proffered jury instruction concerning his mental capacity to consider the consequences of his actions and should have granted three objections that he made under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S. Ct. 1712 (1986), which prohibits the use of race-based peremptory challenges during jury selection. In a unanimous opinion, the Court of Appeals rejected Mr. Hobbs's arguments, concluding that Mr. Hobbs received a fair trial, free from prejudicial error. State v. Hobbs, 260 N.C. App. 394, 409, 817 S.E.2d 779, 790 (2018). Mr. Hobbs then sought discretionary review in this Court, arguing that the Court of Appeals erred in its analysis of his Batson claims with respect to three jurors. We agree. As to the first two jurors, the Court of Appeals rejected Mr. Hobbs's argument "that the trial court's ruling [that Hobbs had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination] became moot." Hobbs, 260 N.C. App. at 404, 817 S.E.2d at 787. This was error. As to the third juror, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's determination that Mr. Hobbs had not met his ultimate burden of showing that the strike was motivated by race. This, also, was error. As to all three jurors, we remand for reconsideration of the third stage of the Batson analysis, namely whether Mr. Hobbs proved purposeful discrimination in each case.


The evidence at trial tended to show that Mr. Hobbs robbed the Cumberland Pawn and Loan Shop on 6 November 2010. Kyle Harris, Derrick Blackwell, and Sean

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Collins were all working and present at the pawn shop on that date. During the robbery, Mr. Hobbs shot Kyle Harris, a nineteen-year-old college student, in the chest, killing him. At trial, Mr. Hobbs presented a defense of diminished capacity, arguing that his troubled upbringing, severe childhood traumas, poor mental health, and substance abuse affected his mental ability at the time of the offenses. Hobbs, 260 N.C. App. at 396-99, 817 S.E.2d at 783-84.

The jury pool for Mr. Hobbs's capital trial was divided into panels of twelve, which were called up in subsequent rounds of jury selection as the parties progressed through voir dire. Mr. Hobbs made his first Batson objection during the third round of jury selection after the State excused jurors Brian Humphrey and Robert Layden, both of whom were black. At the time of those strikes, the State had issued peremptory challenges against eight jurors, two of whom were nonblack and six of whom were black. Of the thirty-one qualified jurors tendered to the State, the State had excused two out of twenty white jurors (10%) and six out of eleven black jurors (54.5%).

Mr. Hobbs argued that the facts above, along with the fact that he was a black male accused of robbing multiple white victims and murdering one white victim, the similarities between the answers provided by the excused black jurors and the accepted nonblack jurors, and the history of racial discrimination in jury selection in the county where Mr. Hobbs was being prosecuted all worked together to establish a prima facie case that the State had impermissibly based its peremptory challenges

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on the race of the jurors. The trial court determined that Mr. Hobbs had not made out a prima facie case of discrimination. However, the trial court asked the State, for purposes of the record, to explain the State's use of peremptory challenges against the black jurors it had excused up to that point. After the State offered its reasons, the trial court gave Mr. Hobbs an opportunity to reply and argue that the State's reasons were pretextual. The trial court described this as "a full hearing on the defendant's Batson claim." Following the hearing, the trial court ruled that the State's peremptory challenges were not made on the basis of race.

Mr. Hobbs made another objection1 pursuant to Batson during the fourth round of jury selection, following the State's use of a peremptory challenge to strike William McNeill from the jury. At the time, the State had used eight out of eleven peremptory challenges against black jurors. At that point, the trial court determined that a prima facie case had been made out by the defense. Accordingly, the trial court required the State to provide race-neutral reasons for its use of a peremptory challenge to strike juror McNeill. The trial court allowed Mr. Hobbs to respond to the State's reasons and, during argument between the parties, noted that the State had accepted eight black jurors in total and issued peremptory challenges against eight black jurors. The trial court concluded that the State's use of a peremptory challenge against juror McNeill was not based on race.

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Reviewing the decision of the trial court, the Court of Appeals held that, notwithstanding the fact that the trial court had requested race-neutral explanations for the strikes of jurors Humphrey and Layden and the fact that it made an ultimate ruling on whether the strikes were motivated by race, the question of whether Mr. Hobbs made out a prima facie case of discrimination as to jurors Humphrey and Layden was not moot. Hobbs, 260 N.C. App. at 404, 817 S.E.2d at 787. The Court of Appeals then concluded that Mr. Hobbs had failed to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Id. at 405, 817 S.E.2d at 787-88. As to juror McNeill, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's ruling that Mr. Hobbs had failed to prove racial discrimination in the State's peremptory challenge. Id. at 407, 817 S.E.2d at 789. Mr. Hobbs petitioned this Court for discretionary review, which we granted.

Standard of Review

Mr. Hobbs claims that the State's peremptory challenges, detailed above, were impermissibly based on the race of the jurors. The trial court has the ultimate responsibility of determining "whether the defendant has satisfied his burden of proving purposeful discrimination." State v. Golphin, 352 N.C. 364, 427, 533 S.E.2d 168, 211 (2000) (quoting State v. Bonnett, 348 N.C. 417, 433, 502 S.E.2d 563, 575 (1998)). We give this determination "great deference," overturning it only if it is clearly erroneous. Id. (citations omitted). Indeed, we have previously held that "[t]rial judges, who are 'experienced in supervising voir dire,' and who observe the prosecutor's questions, statements, and demeanor firsthand, are well qualified to

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'decide if the circumstances concerning the prosecutor's use of peremptory challenges create[ ] a prima facie case of discrimination against black jurors.' " State v. Chapman, 359 N.C. 328, 339, 611 S.E.2d 794, 806 (2005) (alteration in original) (quoting Batson, 476 U.S. at 97, 106 S. Ct. at 1723.) As with any other case, issues of law are reviewed de novo. See, e.g., State v. Parisi, 372 N.C. 639, 649, 831 S.E.2d 236, 243 (2019) (legal conclusions " 'are reviewed de novo and are subject to full review,' with an appellate court being allowed to 'consider[ ] the matter anew and freely substitute[ ] its own judgment for that of the lower tribunal.' " (alterations in original) (quoting State v. Biber, 365 N.C. 162, 168, 712 S.E.2d 874, 878 (2011))).


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