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NC Supreme Court takes up issue of racial bias in jury selection

Posted February 3, 2020 2:06 p.m. EST
Updated February 3, 2020 8:01 p.m. EST

— In more than 100 cases in North Carolina in which inmates claimed they didn't receive a fair trial because blacks were improperly kept off their juries, state courts have never overturned a conviction based on that argument.

That could soon change.

The state Supreme Court on Monday chose to hear arguments in two cases where black men say they were convicted after prosecutors excluded blacks from sitting on their juries:

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1986 barred prosecutors from striking a potential juror strictly on the basis of race. Last year, the high court overturned the conviction of a man in Mississippi after prosecutors there showed a clear pattern of racial bias in choosing members of his jury – several times over.

In fact, courts in every southern state outside of North Carolina have overturned convictions because of prosecutors’ racial bias in jury selection.

Frank Wells, an attorney for Bennett, said prosecutors picking jurors because of the color of their skin is a longstanding problem that comes from North Carolina's history of racism.

"We have a large portion of our statewide population that doesn’t trust our judicial system, in part because prosecutors and other people involved in the system are allowed to discriminate on the basis of race," Wells said.

Hobbs and Bennett would get new trials if the court rules in their favor, and Wells said the fact that the court chose to hear these cases makes him optimistic.

"Perhaps this court is going to have the courage to do the right thing," he said. "Acknowledging that we, as a court system, have not done everything we should do to ensure that minority groups have access to serve as jurors and that they can expect equal justice under the law. I think we are a long way away from having done that."

A decision in either case isn't expected for months.

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