NC Supreme Court considering overturning convictions of 2 men on basis of racial bias in jury selection

Wake County News

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The state Supreme Court is considering whether to overturn the convictions of two men whose attorneys argue that potential black jurors were dismissed from serving due to their race.

If the justices rule in their favor, it would be the first time the Supreme Court in North Carolina has overturned convictions because of racial bias in jury selection and could lead to the men getting new trials.

“It’s not to be part of our judicial system, and yet it happens all the time,” said attorney Franklin Wells.

The court heard about two cases Monday. Cedric Hobbs is serving a life sentence after being convicted of the 2010 murder of Kyle Harris, who worked at a pawn shop in Cumberland County. Cory Bennett is appealing his convictions on drug charges, including trafficking methamphetamine in Sampson County, following an investigation in 2015.

Both men argue in their respective cases that prosecutors decided to strike potential jurors based on race, which would be illegal.

“It calls into question the very integrity of the system,” said Wells.

Kristin Uicker, an assistant attorney general, pointed out in Bennett’s case while the prosecutor did remove two potential black jurors, three people who were black did make it on the jury.

“Here, the prosecutor accepted at least 60 percent of the known black jurors,” she said.

Justice Anita Earls followed up with Uicker about what prosecutors can consider when it comes to the race of jurors.

“If what’s unconstitutional is for a prosecutor to strike someone because of their race, then what matters is what the prosecutor thinks about that person’s race,” Earls said.

“What matters is the motivation, not the perception,” Uicker responded. “Merely the prosecutor’s assessment of that person’s race does not have any bearing on the reason that they are using the strike.”

A transcript from Bennett’s trial shows the defense attorney questioned why the prosecutor’s only two strikes were for potential jurors who were black. The judge did not find the strikes were racially motivated.

Franklin Wells said, “Mr. Bennett merely has to show that there is an inference that race had some effect on one or more of those challenges.”

It’s not clear when the Supreme Court will issue decisions in these cases.

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