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Claim of racial bias in Rowan County death penalty case cites SCOTUS decision

The Supreme Court
Josh Berglund
The Supreme Court

People of color make up more than 60% of North Carolina death row inmates despite the state’s population being more than 60% white. An ongoing legal challenge to a death penalty case in Rowan County is spotlighting a 1980s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bars using race as a reason to exclude jurors in trials.

Jacob Biba wrote about it in partnership with The Garrison Project and he joins WFAE's Marshall Terry to discuss.

Marshall Terry: So what is this case in Rowan County and how does this Supreme Court decision, Batson v. Kentucky, come into it?

Jacob Biba: This case involves the 1992 murder of a white elderly couple by three Black men in Salisbury. One of the victims worked as a sheriff's deputy and in the lead-up to the trial, there was a lot of racial tension. The Ku Klux Klan marched in downtown Salisbury in protests of the killing. All three men were tried together and found guilty by a nearly all-white jury. Two of the men were sentenced to death and one was sentenced to life.

The Supreme Court's decision in Batson comes into play as a result of jury selection in that trial. Frank Chambers, one of the defendants sentenced to death, has been arguing since his trial that race played a significant role in the strike of Black jurors, in his case. Right now, his attorneys are focusing on the strikes of two Black women, in particular, at trial when challenged under Batson. For one of those strikes, the prosecutor cited the woman's age, her hairstyle, lack of eye contact and the fact that she was single, which he said indicated a lack of stability. A lot of the reasons used are often associated with historical stereotypes of Black people. The prosecutor also said he struck her because she admitted her Black friends who criticized her for convicting the defendants, even though she repeatedly said it wouldn't influence her decision. He also mentioned she was physically attractive, as was one of the defendants. Later, the prosecutor admitted he thought it may distract her from the proceedings, though he wasn't concerned that any other women in the jury pool would be attracted to that defendant.

The judge ultimately ruled that the prosecutor didn't violate Batson in any of those instances, as did appeals courts in North Carolina in the years after the trial. But new evidence, specifically jury selection notes related to the race of Black potential jurors were discovered, led to an evidentiary hearing in 2023 and are the reason why Chambers’ claims are still being litigated 30 years later.

Terry: I was going to ask you: What’s the argument for Chambers, and what evidence do they have that race was improperly used to strike jurors?

Chambers’ attorneys believe his case is exceptionally strong under Batson. The jury selection notes bolstered his claim, they believe, especially when paired with the prosecutor's testimony during last year's hearing. If you look at some of the other cases that have won relief in front of the U.S Supreme Court under Batson, Chambers' attorneys believe his case kind of checks all those boxes and more. They cite the prosecutor's pattern of strikes, his racially desperate questioning and the prosecution's jury selection notes, which seemingly labeled Black potential jurors and for some, described their hairstyles. At the hearing last year, the prosecutor admitted to writing a note referencing one of the jurors with the word race, and that the note was related to why she was excluded from the jury. Chambers’ attorneys think that's especially strong evidence.

Terry: And what does the prosecution say now?

Biba: The state argues that Chambers’ claims are procedurally barred. Essentially, they're saying evidence like the jury selection notes were available to lawyers working on Chambers’ appeal back in 1999, but one of his post-conviction attorneys, who’s now sitting judge in Rowan County, testified last year that he never received those notes. But even if Chambers’ claims weren't barred, the state continues to argue they're without merit. They contend race played no factor in the prosecutor strikes of those jurors.

Terry: What’s at stake here? Is the defense trying to get a new trial or just a new sentence?

Biba: They're trying to get a new trial. Chambers’ death sentence has already been vacated as a result of a juror misconduct claim, so he'll have a resentencing hearing if he doesn't get relief under Batson. But with resentencing, the prosecution could seek the death penalty again.

Terry: How often is this Supreme Court decision, Batson v. Kentucky, used to challenge sentences? And have other North Carolina cases been challenged under it?

Biba: Quite a few North Carolina cases have been challenged under Batson, but the courts have only overturned one conviction as a result, and that was in 2022. Up until then, North Carolina was one of the only states in the South that hadn't overturned a conviction as a result of Batson, which I think was seen as an embarrassment to a lot of legal advocates working.

Terry: Inmates on death row in North Carolina had the chance to challenge their sentence through the 2009 Racial Justice Act if they could prove racial bias was a factor in their sentencing. But that act was repealed after only a few years. Why was it repealed and what options do inmates have now?

Biba: Well, the law was enacted when the Democrats controlled the General Assembly, but when Republicans soon took control, they weakened the law. They ultimately repealed it in 2013, believing it effectively ended the death penalty in the state. But in the four years it was law, more than 100 people filed claims under the RJA and four people actually won relief and were resentenced to life without parole. But with this repeal, those four people were re-sentenced to death, and everyone's claims were in this sort of legal limbo for the next seven years or so.

In 2020, the state Supreme Court ruled that the claims filed before the repeal could move forward and those four people who originally won relief were resentenced back to life without parole. Now this past spring, the first RJA hearing since the 2020 decision was held. Closing arguments in that hearing should occur sometime soon, and a judge will issue a decision. This case is considered the lead case and may signal how other claims may play out in the future related to the RJA.

Additionally, there's a big push among death penalty opponents urging Governor Cooper to clear death row and commute sentences before he leaves office. There hasn't been an execution in North Carolina since 2006, but there's a fear that if Mark Robinson is elected governor and Dan Bishop is elected attorney general, those executions would start back up.

Terry: And those are the Republicans running for those respective offices. Going back now to Chambers and his case, what happens now? You did mention his death sentence has been vacated. But what happens with his case overall?

Biba: So right now, with his Batson claims, the evidentiary hearing last year, the trial judge ruled against Chambers. So his attorneys have filed a petition with the state Supreme Court seeking review. But given the makeup of the court in its recent past decisions related to Batson, even if the court agrees to hear the case, I think the likelihood of a majority of justices ruling in his favor is slim.

I think this is a case that will probably end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.