In 2016, Ramar Crump was convicted of crimes tied to a chaotic shootout with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police three years before. Superior Court Judge Greg Hayes sentenced Crump to up to 100 years in prison.
Now, a divided N.C. Supreme Court has ordered a new trial, ruling that Hayes improperly blocked Crump’s attorney from questioning the prospective jurors about their possible racial biases.
The 4-3 decision this month overturned a 2018 ruling by the state Court of Appeals that unanimously upheld Crump’s conviction.
The seven members of the state’s highest court, however, carved out opposing sides on whether Hayes had muffled an examination of racial bias, which legal reformers long have blamed for more arrests, convictions and harsher punishment for minority defendants.
“An essential feature of the right to a fair and impartial trial is 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,” Justice Anita Earls wrote in the majority decision.
Earls, who is Black and a former Charlotte attorney, argued that the racial attitudes of Crump’s would-be jurors should have been explored because they were relevant to the outcome of the trial.
Earls said the evidence showed “a clear connection” between the questions Crump’s defense attorney — Greg Tosi of Charlotte — tried to ask during jury selection and “the meaningful factual disputes that the jury was required to resolve.”
Did Crump, then a 26-year-old Black man from Albemarle, or two white CMPD officers fire first in their violent 2013 encounter on North Tryon Street?
Did Crump flee the scene because he committed a crime or because he thought he would be shot by police?
Earls, who co-chairs the state’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice, wrote: “While we do not impugn the integrity of the jurors who ultimately decided to convict (Crump), the defendant’s inability to question prospective jurors about racial bias and police officer shootings of black men deprived him of a crucial tool needed to mitigate the risks that his trial would be infected by racial prejudice.”
The ruling brought a biting and bipartisan dissent, with incoming Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican, joining Democratic colleagues Mark Davis and Michael Morgan.
In his opinion, Davis wrote that his colleagues in the majority were acting more like defense attorneys than judges — offering a defense that they believe Crump should have received while raising questions that they believe Tosi should have asked.
He said Hayes, the trial judge, was not trying to block an examination of bias in the jury, only poorly worded and improper questions by the defense.
“The majority appears to be saying that this Court is free to come up with arguments of its own that defense counsel could — and perhaps should — have made in the trial court and then rely on those same manufactured grounds to hold that the trial court abused its discretion,” Davis wrote.
“Needless to say, such a proposition is inconsistent with both law and logic.”
The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office said Crump’s next trial has been classified as “pending.”
Hayes could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The poker game
The Crump case started with the robbery of an underground poker game on Sept. 24, 2013. As the cards were being dealt in a Charlotte office suite, two armed men entered, told the gamblers to strip, then escaped with their wallets, money, cell phones, credit cards and clothing.
One of the victims came up with a plan to catch the gunmen. He sent a text message to one of the stolen phones with details of a new card game, a phony one, at a North Tryon Street location.
Early on the morning of Sept. 29, according to court documents, Crump and two companions pulled up in front of the Tryon Street location in Crump’s silver Ford Mustang.
The gambler who had lured them there had already arrived and was waiting, armed, in his own car. But after seeing that Crump was carrying a weapon, the gambler drove over to a parking lot and called 911, reporting a suspicious vehicle with armed occupants, court documents show.
Four CMPD officers, including Anthony Holzhauer and David Sussman, responded to the call, searching for a silver Mustang with at least two armed occupants planning a robbery, the Supreme Court opinion says.
Holzhauer, carrying a shotgun, and Sussman, with his service revolver drawn, walked to the location’s back parking lot and spotted Crump’s Mustang.
A firefight broke out. Crump tried to escape and drove toward a parking lot exit, with the police officers firing as the vehicle passed them. A 20-mile chase ensued. When it ended, police found some of the stolen items from the card-game robbery in the trunk of Crump’s car, along with weapons and other items.
Crump later said it wasn’t until he was racing out of the parking lot that he knew the gunshots came from police, and he said the cops had fired first.
He said he did not pull over because he was afraid of being shot. At one point during the chase, according to the opinion, Crump and the other two occupants put their hands and a white T-shirt out the windows. He also called 911 to explain the situation “in the hopes of figuring out a way to surrender without getting shot.”
However, he never pulled over. The chase ended when police blew out Crump’s tires.
The competing accounts of the shooting set the course for the trial.
Holzhauer and Sussman testified that Crump, unprovoked, fired first. Crump said that while he was sitting in his car, waiting to “check out” but not rob the poker game, he saw a silhouette of a man with a long gun aimed at him, heard gunshots and felt an impact on the side of his door. He said he returned fire out of fear for his life.
The Supreme Court opinion and dissent focused on what happened before testimony, when lawyers for both sides were trying to pick a jury, and Tosi raised the issue of possible juror racial bias against his client.
“When you hear the statement, ‘the only black man charged with robbery,’ what’s the first thing that pops into your head?” he asked.
Prosecutor Glenn Cole objected, according to the opinion. Hayes sustained the objection.
Next, Tosi tried to question the would-be jurors about police shootings of Black men in general. Crump’s arrest in 2013 had come only weeks after CMPD Officer Randall “Wes” Kerrick had been charged with the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell. Kerrick is white; Ferrell was Black. The charges against the officer were dropped after Kerrick’s 2015 manslaughter trial ended in a hung jury.
At Crump’s 2016 trial, Tosi asked if any of the prospective jurors were familiar with the Ferrell case. Cole again objected. Hayes sustained.
“Your honor … can I inquire of the jury if they have opinions related to incidents of cops firing on civilians that happened?” Tosi asked.
Hayes said he could not, joining Cole in dismissing the inquiry as an improper “stake-out question,” or one that was trying to discern how jurors would vote given a certain set of facts.
Tosi said he was only trying to see if the would-be jurors had any opinions about the Ferrell shooting that “would impact their ability to determine the evidence in this case.”
Hayes: “We’re not going down that road during jury selection. If it comes to the point during the trial that this becomes an issue, then we can have a lot more discussions about it.”
On Wednesday after reading the Supreme Court opinion, Tosi said the majority had come to the correct conclusion that “Mr. Crump’s rights had been infringed by our inability to ask those questions.” Every time he tried, he said, “it was shut down, shut down, shut down.”
He said the dissenting judges on the Supreme Court had “sliced the pie to get the pieces they wanted,” but had missed the bigger point.
“Racial bias was an issue in 2013 when the arrest occurred. It was an issue in 2016 around the trial,” Tosi said.
“And it’s a bigger issue today than ever before.”