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North Carolina Supreme Court: Superior Court Abused Discretion by Flatly Prohibiting Questions on Racial Bias During Voir Dire

Police arrived at a parking garage in response to a call reporting “a suspicious vehicle ... occupied by at least two black males [who] appeared [to be] loading up guns.” Two officers approached a silver Mustang occupied by Ramar Crump and two passengers. One officer openly carried a shotgun, and the other had his service revolver drawn. According to Crump, he saw the silhouette of a man carrying a long gun aimed at him and heard gunshots that struck his car, so he returned fire. But the police contended that Crump fired first, and they were the ones who returned fire. Crump and his passengers fled in the Mustang with officers from several departments giving chase.

Crump testified that it wasn’t until after he fled in the Mustang that he realized he had exchanged gunfire with police. Fearing for their lives, Crump called 911 in an effort to come up with a solution that would keep the men from being shot by police. The three men held their hands and a white T-shirt outside the car’s windows indicating their desire to surrender as they fled. The police deployed stop sticks that punctured the car’s tires. All three men were then arrested.

Crump was tried on numerous felonies, including two counts of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. At one point during voir dire, defense counsel first explained the concept of “implicit bias against people of a particular race, specifically African Americans” and then asked: “When you hear the statement the only black man charged with robbery, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?” The State objected, and the trial court sustained.

Defense counsel then said, “[t]here have been some cases in the recent history of this country dealing with this issue” and then asked if any of the jurors were familiar with the [then] recent shooting and killing of Jonathan Ferrell by police in Charlotte. The State objected, and the court again sustained.

Outside of the presence of the jury, defense counsel referenced other instances of police killing Black people and then asked, “Your Honor, generally as to incidents, can I inquire of the jury if they have opinions related to incidents of cops firing on civilians that happened in the past couple years?” The judge answered, “I think that’s another stake-out question.... Once you get into a quote, unquote here’s a situation, what do you think, how would you vote, I think that’s a stake-out question, so I would sustain that objection, also.”

Crump was ultimately convicted and appealed. The Court of Appeals (“COA”) concluded that the trial court “flatly prohibited questioning as to issues of race and implicit bias during voir dire” and “categorically denied [defendant] the opportunity to question prospective jurors not only about a specific police officer shooting, but also even generally about their opinions and/or biases regarding police officer shootings of (specifically) black men.” But the COA affirmed, holding that the trial court’s actions were not prejudicial to Crump because “[p]er defendant’s own testimony, it was not until the car chase ensued that he was even aware the individuals he fired on were police officers.” The Supreme Court of North Carolina granted further review.

The Court observed “[u]nder both the Federal Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution, every criminal defendant has the right to be tried by a fair and impartial jury.” U.S. Const. amend. VI; N.C. Const. art. I, § 24. This is inclusive of the right to be tried by jurors who do not judge a party or the evidence based on animus or bias toward a racial group. State v. Cofield, 357 S.E.2d 622 (N.C. 1987). A defendant is permitted to challenge any prospective juror believed to be unable to render a fair and impartial verdict. N.C.G.S. § 15A-1212(9) (2019). In order to intelligently exercise their right to challenge for cause, defendants may question prospective jurors regarding their morals, attitudes, and beliefs during voir dire provided those questions are relevant to a subject at issue at trial. State v. Corey, 206 S.E.2d 213 (N.C. 1974).

But the trial court may exercise its discretion to restrict the extent and manner of a defendant’s questioning. State v. Cummings, 648 S.E.2d 788 (N.C. 2007). A trial court may prevent a defendant from asking questions that “stake out a juror,” i.e., asking a prospective juror what his or her decision would be in a given set of facts. State v. Parks, 378 S.E.2d 785 (N.C. 1989). Likewise, a trial court may prevent the asking of “hypothetical questions so phrased as to be ambiguous and confusing or containing incorrect or inadequate statements of the law. State v. Vinson, 215 S.E.2d 60 (N.C. 1975). But it exceeds the trial court’s discretion to entirely prevent a party from asking any questions at all about an appropriate subject that is relevant at trial. State v. Robinson, 409 S.E.2d 288 (N.C. 1991).

According to the Court, the facts of the instant case revealed that inquiries regarding implicit racial bias and bias regarding police officers shooting Black men were appropriate subjects. Further, the Court noted that none of defense counsel’s questions were stake-out questions or ambiguous and confusing or contained incorrect or inadequate statements of the law. The Court agreed with the COA that the trial court “flatly prohibited questioning as to issues of race and implicit bias during voir dire” and “categorically denied [defendant] the opportunity to question prospective jurors not only about a specific police officer shooting, but also even generally about their opinions and/or biases regarding police officer shootings of (specifically) black men.”

But the Court disagreed with the COA’s determination that Crump wasn’t prejudiced by the trial court’s error. An error is prejudicial when there is a reasonable possibility that, had the error not been committed, the result of the trial would have been different. N.C.G.S. § 15A-1443(a) (2019). The determination of Crump’s case rested on whether the jury believed it was Crump who fired first or whether they believed the officers fired first – and this determination rested solely on the testimony of Crump versus the police officers.

The trial court’s error prevented Crump from learning if any prospective jurors were biased against believing Black men when they contradicted police officers. Also, the facts demonstrated that the officers knew the Mustang’s occupants were “armed black men,” and Crump was prevented from learning if any jurors harbored prejudice toward armed Black men. Additionally, Crump was prevented from discovering if any jurors held a bias that would cause them to reject the notion that Black men fled from police out of fear and not out of a desire to escape accountability due to knowledge of guilt, the Court explained.

Reversal is required when a trial court abuses its discretion during voir dire, and the error results in prejudice. State v. Bishop, 472 S.E.2d 842 (N.C. 1996).

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State v. Crump

 

 

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