GREENSBORO — After a Black judge voiced her views on race and religion during a Guilford County trial, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled a new trial be ordered for the defendant.
In July 2019, Allen Anthony Campbell was indicted on several traffic violations, including reckless driving to endanger and fleeing to elude arrest. A Guilford County Superior Court jury found him guilty later that year on some of the charges, and he pleaded guilty to the habitual felon charge. He was sentenced to about seven to 10 years in prison.
As is customary in jury trials, the prosecutor, in his questioning of potential jurors, asked if any would be uncomfortable returning a verdict in the case because of ethical, religious or moral reasons.
When one prospective juror responded that he would feel uncomfortable because of his religious beliefs as a “non denominational Baptist,” Superior Court Judge Lora Christine Cubbage excused the juror, who is Black.
Cubbage told the other prospective jurors:
“... let me just say, and especially to African Americans: Everyday we are in the newspaper stating we don’t get fairness in the judicial system... But none of us — 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.”
Cubbage added that, as a Baptist herself, she would have no issue serving as a jury member.
In the appeal, Campbell, who is Black, believes his rights were violated because the judge “intimidated the jurors from exercising their beliefs, free will or judgment” and because the judge interjected race into the trial.
Cubbage’s remarks constitute a “structural error,” Court of Appeals Chief Judge Donna Stroud wrote in the majority opinion for the three-judge panel, which ruled 2-1 for a new trial.
Despite Cubbage’s comments appearing to reflect her desire for Campbell to have a fair trial, her comments would likely make other jurors — especially Black jurors — “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,” Stroud wrote.
In his dissenting opinion, Judge Chris Dillon said that although some of Cubbage’s words may have been inappropriate, they weren’t designed to suggest that Campbell was guilty or to coerce jurors to answer dishonestly.
“Rather, she was admonishing just the opposite — for the jurors to be honest about whether their objection to sitting on the jury was truly based on a religious reason,” Dillon wrote in saying that he would have upheld the convictions.
The 2-1 decision means it would fall to the state Supreme Court to consider any appeal. But it’s unclear one will be requested since both sides in the case sought a new trial.
Cubbage became a Superior Court judge in 2018 after serving as a District Court judge. In 2020, she ran for an open seat on the Court of Appeals, but lost to Fred Gore.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Contact Jamie Biggs at 336-373-4476 and follow @JamieBiggsNR on Twitter.