Case Summaries: N.C. Court of Appeals (Feb. 15, 2022)

This post summarizes criminal decisions from the North Carolina Court of Appeals published on February 15, 2022. As always, these summaries will be added to the School’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to present.

(1) The trial court did not err in refusing to instruct the jury on voluntary intoxication where there was not substantial evidence the defendant was so intoxicated that he could not form a premeditated and deliberate intent to kill; (2) The trial court did not err by admitting a handgun into evidence before its relevance was established or commit prejudicial error by admitting the handgun without the State establishing a chain of custody

State v. Green, 2022-NCCOA-95, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb. 15, 2022). In this Richmond County case, the defendant was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill for shooting an acquaintance during an argument, and, during the same incident, shooting another acquaintance who was standing nearby in the leg. The defendant had been drinking for more than six hours before he shot the victims. After he began drinking and several hours before the shooting, he displayed a gun in front of a child. After the shooting, he drove to another acquaintance’s house and honked his car horn for thirty minutes.  At trial, he requested that the judge instruct the jury on voluntary intoxication. The judge refused this request.

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by refusing to instruct the jury on voluntary intoxication. The defendant contended there was substantial evidence that, because of his intoxication, he could not form a deliberate and premeditated intent to kill the victim. The Court of Appeals concluded that although there was evidence that the defendant was very intoxicated and acted recklessly some hours before the shooting, there was not substantial evidence that he was intoxicated to the point he could not control himself and could not form the intent to kill the victim. The Court noted that the defendant shot and killed the victim following an argument and then drove away from the scene, arriving at an acquaintance’s house without getting into an accident. Hours after the shooting, he told officers that he shot the deceased victim in self-defense. Thus, the Court concluded that the trial court did not err in not instructing the jury on voluntary intoxication.

(2) The defendant also argued on appeal that the trial court erred in admitting the handgun used in the shootings during testimony from the pawnbroker who transferred the gun to the defendant. This took place early in the trial and before the State presented evidence that the handgun was used to shoot the victims. The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err in admitting the handgun before its relevance had been established as the State later presented evidence connecting the handgun to the shootings. The defendant also argued that the trial court erred by admitting the handgun because the State did not establish a chain of custody. Even assuming the defendant preserved this issue for appeal and that the trial court erred in this regard, the Court found that the error did not prejudice the defendant in light of other overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.

Erroneously admitted testimony regarding defendant’s pre-arrest silence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt

State v. Shuler, 2022-NCCOA-96, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb. 15, 2022). The facts of this Haywood County case were previously summarized here following the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Shuler, 2021-NCSC-89, 378 N.C. 337, 861 S.E.2d 512 (Aug. 13, 2021) (Shuler I). The North Carolina Supreme Court held in Shuler I that the Court of Appeals erred by admitting testimony regarding the defendant’s pre-arrest silence before the defendant testified at trial. Shuler I held that the defendant did not forfeit her Fifth Amendment right when she provided notice of her intent to invoke an affirmative defense and that the State may not preemptively impeach a defendant who has not testified. The North Carolina Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to determine whether the erroneously admitted testimony was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

On remand, the Court of Appeals held that admission of the improper evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence consisted of a detective’s testimony that at the time the defendant was discovered with drugs she did not make any statements about the person she later contended had threatened her in order to convince her to hold on to the drugs. The Court of Appeals reasoned that this testimony related solely to the affirmative defense of duress, a defense that was supported only by the defendant’s testimony and which the jury was “clearly likely” to have rejected. Id. at 14. The Court concluded there was substantial and overwhelming evidence that the defendant knowingly possessed the drugs for which she was charged. It further noted that the State made no additional references to the defendant’s pre-arrest silence following the detective’s testimony and did not reference the defendant’s silence in closing argument. The Court thus deemed the impact of the reference to the defendant’s silence to be de minimis.