Ruling: Judge's comments on religion, race were improper

·2 min read

Oct. 20—GUILFORD COUNTY — A man convicted of traffic offenses and found to be a habitual felon nearly two years ago deserves a new trial because the Guilford County judge overseeing the case suggested a Black prospective juror was making up a religious excuse not to serve and said that "most African Americans do not want to serve on a jury," a panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled.

Allen Anthony Campbell was convicted in December 2019 in Guilford County Superior Court of driving while license revoked, failure to heed light or siren, speeding, reckless driving to endanger, fleeing to elude arrest and habitual felon status, but his appeal argued that the judge's comments during jury selection denied him the chance for a fair trial.

During jury selection, a man said his Baptist religious beliefs would make him uncomfortable deciding on another person's guilt or innocence.

Judge Lora Christine Cubbage, who also is Black, expressed frustration at length with that argument.

"Let me just say this, and especially to African Americans: Every day we are in the newspaper stating we don't get fairness in the judicial system. Every single day. But ... most African Americans do not want to serve on a jury. And 90 percent of the time, it's an African American defendant. So we walk off these juries and we leave open the opportunity for — for juries to exist with no African American sitting on them, to give an African American defendant a fair trial. So we cannot keep complaining if we're going to be part of the problem," she said. "Now I grew up Baptist, too. And there's nothing about a Baptist background that says we can't listen to the evidence and decide whether this gentleman, sitting over at this table, was treated the way he was supposed to be treated and was given — was charged the way he was supposed to be charged."

Cubbage dismissed the man from the jury pool, but Campbell's attorney argued in the appeal that her comments on religion "intimidated the jurors from exercising their own beliefs" and that she also "gratuitously interjected race into the trial."

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled that although Cubbage may have been motivated by a desire to see that Campbell, who is Black, had an ethnically diverse jury, her comments were inappropriate.

"Courts have cautioned that irrelevant references to religion, race, and other immutable characteristics can impede a defendant's right to equal protection and due process," the ruling said. "After observing the trial court admonish (the) prospective juror ... other potential jurors — especially African American jurors — would likely be reluctant to respond openly and frankly to questions during jury selection regarding their ability to be fair and neutral, particularly if their concerns arose from their religious beliefs."

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