This post summarizes the published criminal opinions from the Supreme Court of North Carolina released on September 1, 2023. These summaries will be added to Smith’s Criminal Case Compendium, a free and searchable database of case summaries from 2008 to the present.
State v. Richardson, 272A14, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023). The Supreme Court concluded that defendant’s trial was free from prejudicial error and upheld his death sentence. A faculty member will provide a complete summary of this lengthy opinion soon.
Court of Appeals incorrectly ordered new trial where evidence in the record, in the light most favorable to the State, supported inference that defendant acted as the aggressor.
State v. Hicks, 136PA22, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023). In this Randolph County case, the Supreme Court majority reversed the Court of Appeals decision overturning defendant’s conviction for second-degree murder, finding no error by the trial court.
In June of 2017, after a tumultuous affair involving the use of methamphetamine, defendant shot the victim while he was in her home. Defendant called 911 to report her shooting of the victim, who was in her bedroom at the time he was killed. An investigation found that the victim was shot in the back and evidence suggested that the shots were fired from more than six inches away. Defendant was indicted for second-degree murder; during trial the court instructed the jury on the aggressor doctrine over defendant’s objection. After defendant was convicted, she appealed, arguing the trial court erred by providing instruction on the aggressor doctrine. The Court of Appeals agreed, ordering a new trial.
The Supreme Court noted that the appropriate inquiry was whether evidence in the record, when interpreted in the light most favorable to the State, supported the conclusion that defendant was the aggressor, and determined that the Court of Appeals failed to properly apply the standard in the current case. The self-defense “castle doctrine” provisions of G.S. §§ 14-51.2 and 14-51.3 allow a person to use deadly force to defend themselves in their home; the “aggressor doctrine” in G.S. 14-51.4 removes this defense if the jury finds that the defendant initially provoked the confrontation and no exceptions apply. When determining whether an instruction on the aggressor doctrine is appropriate, “a trial court must consider whether a jury could reasonably infer from the evidence that the defendant acted as an aggressor.” Slip Op. at 15. When making this determination, “the court must view the record in the light most favorable to the State, drawing all reasonable inferences in its favor.” Id. Here, defendant’s testimony at trial contradicted her previous statements, and contained new details not previously disclosed. The Supreme Court pointed out that physical evidence also seemed to contradict defendant’s version of events. Because “there was significant evidence from which a jury reasonably could conclude that [defendant] was the aggressor,” the trial court provided the proper instruction on the aggressor doctrine, and the Court of Appeals incorrectly ordered a new trial. Id. at 21.
Justice Dietz, joined by Justice Berger, concurred by separate opinion to draw a distinction between common law aggressor doctrine and G.S. 14-51.4. Id. at 22.
Justice Morgan, joined by Justice Barringer, dissented by separate opinion, and would have found that the aggressor doctrine instruction was inappropriate in this case. Id. at 25.
Justice Barringer, joined by Justice Morgan, dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that the speculative evidence in the current case was insufficient to support the conclusion that defendant was the aggressor. Id. at 28.
“Opening the door” to discussion of victim’s friendly nature did not entitle defendant to question victim’s father regarding contents of victim’s phone in front of the jury.
State v. McKoy, 71A22, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023). In this Durham County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals majority decision upholding defendant’s voluntary manslaughter conviction.
In December of 2016, defendant was driving out of his neighborhood when he was followed by the victim. Defendant was familiar with the victim and felt that the victim was violent and posed a threat to his safety. After the victim cut defendant off and blocked his way forward, defendant backed up, but found himself stuck in a ditch. As the victim approached his car, defendant pulled out a gun and fired at the victim. Defendant hit the victim in the back of the head as he ran from the gunfire, killing him. At trial, defendant argued he was acting in self-defense, even though no gun was found on the victim. Defense counsel attempted to question the victim’s father about the contents of the victim’s phone, including photos of the victim and friends holding guns. The trial court did not permit this questioning, despite defense counsel’s argument that the State had opened the door to examining this issue after testimony regarding the victim’s happy, friendly nature. On appeal, the Court of Appeals majority found that the trial court properly applied the Rule of Evidence 403 balancing test and excluded the evidence, and that even if this was error, it was not prejudicial. The dissent would have found that the line of questioning opened the door to allowing the phone evidence and that defendant was entitled to a new trial.
The Supreme Court explained the issue on appeal as “whether, if the door was opened, defendant had the right to ask [the victim’s father] specific questions about the cell phone’s contents in front of the jury.” Slip Op. at 11. The Court explained that the concept of opening the door predated the modern rules of evidence, and that frequently the concept was no longer needed due to the structure of the modern rules. Despite the State’s opening the door on “otherwise irrelevant or inadmissible evidence,” the trial court retained the power to act as gatekeeper under Rule 403. Id. at 14. This gatekeeping function is reviewed for abuse of discretion on appeal, a standard that is “a steep uphill climb” for an appealing party. Id. at 15. Here, the trial court struck a balance that the Supreme Court found not an abuse of discretion.
The Court went beyond the abuse of discretion analysis to determine that, even if the trial court committed abuse of discretion, defendant was not prejudiced by the decision and was not entitled to a new trial. Explaining defendant’s conviction, the Court noted that the jury found defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, meaning that they found he was acting in self-defense but that he used excessive force when doing so. The Court explained that there was no reasonable way the evidence would have convinced the jury that defendant was acting appropriately, as defendant had never seen or heard about the contents of the victim’s phone prior to the shooting. Id. at 18. Likewise, the evidence would not have supported the jury finding that the victim had a gun or shot at defendant, and could not have rebutted the evidence showing the victim was fleeing from defendant when he was shot in the back. After making this determination, the Court concluded “[t]here is no reasonable possibility that a ruling in defendant’s favor [on the phone evidence] would have led to a different jury verdict.” Id. at 20.
Trial court properly excluded evidence related to other possible suspects because the evidence did not exculpate defendants.
State v. Abbitt and Albarran, 334A21, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023). In this Rowan County case, the Supreme Court majority affirmed the Court of Appeals decision upholding the exclusion of evidence offered by defendants to show other individuals committed the crimes for which defendants were convicted. Defendants were jointly tried and convicted of first-degree murder, attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, and assault with a deadly weapon.
In May of 2016, defendants came to an apartment with the eventual murder victim, apparently searching for money owed by the woman to the defendants. The murder victim’s mother and three-year-old son were also in the apartment. Defendants searched the bedroom, and after not finding the money, shot the woman in the head, killing her. The woman’s mother witnessed the events, and was at one point struck in the face by one of the defendants. The mother was able to identify defendants to the police and also testified identifying them at trial. During the trial, the State filed a motion in limine to exclude mention of the possible guilt of two other individuals that defendants argued were responsible for the crimes. Defendants’ evidence involved the identification of another woman who looked similar to one of the defendants, possessed a gun of the same caliber as the murder weapon, and drove a vehicle that matched a description from a confidential informant of a vehicle present at the scene. The trial court granted the motion in limine, ruling that the proffered evidence was not inconsistent with the guilt of the defendants. The trial court relied on the applicable test under State v. Cotton, 318 N.C. 663 (1987), where evidence implicating the guilt of others “‘must tend both to implicate another and be inconsistent with the guilt of the defendant.’” Slip Op. at 7.
The Supreme Court reviewed defendants’ appeal de novo, noting that the parties agreed that the evidence in question was relevant, meaning the only consideration in front of the Court was whether the evidence was inconsistent with defendants’ guilt. The Court looked to State v. McNeill, 326 N.C. 712 (1990), for the relevant standard, emphasizing that the evidence must show another person actually committed the crimes instead of defendants, not just that another person had the opportunity to commit them. Walking through the evidence, the Court concluded that “while defendants’ proffered evidence implicates other suspects which were suggested by defendants, such evidence does not exculpate defendants.” Slip Op. at 23. The Court explained that because the evidence did not tend to show the innocence of either defendant, it did not satisfy the applicable test and was inadmissible.
Justice Earls dissented by separate opinion and would have allowed the admission of the excluded evidence. Id. at 25.
Supreme Court affirmed per curiam the unpublished Court of Appeals decision finding defendant’s statistical analysis evidence lacked relevant benchmarks to demonstrate discrimination.
State v. Johnson, 197AP20-2, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023). In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court affirmed per curiam the unpublished Court of Appeals opinion State v. Johnson, COA19-529-2, 275 N.C. App. 980 (table), 2020 WL 7974001 (Dec. 31, 2020). Previously, the Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion on April 21, 2020, which the Supreme Court remanded for consideration of defendant’s equal protection claims. The current opinion affirms the Court of Appeals’ decision after remand that found no error in the denial of defendant’s motion to suppress.
The matter arose from an arrest in November of 2017. A police officer noticed defendant, a black man, parked at an apartment complex and approached his vehicle. As the officer approached, defendant left his vehicle, and the officer smelled marijuana. Defendant attempted to flee, and the officer detained him, eventually finding cocaine and marijuana after a search. At trial, defendant moved to suppress the results of the search, arguing discriminatory intent and violation of his equal protection rights. During the hearing on the motion to suppress for equal protection violations, defendant introduced statistical evidence of the arresting officer’s law enforcement actions to show that the arrest was discriminatory and represented selective enforcement of the law. Defense counsel told the trial court that the burden of proof for the motion to suppress was on the defense, and the trial court agreed, assigning the initial burden to defendant. After the hearing, the trial court denied defendant’s motion.
Taking up the case after the Supreme Court’s remand, the Court of Appeals established that the initial burden was properly placed on defendant after looking to applicable equal protection caselaw under the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions. The court then dispensed with defendant’s statistical analysis evidence as it lacked adequate benchmarks for the data, explaining that “without reliable data indicating the population and demographics in southeast Raleigh and further details on [the officer’s] patrol history, these statistics do not establish a prima facie case that [the officer’s] actions had a discriminatory effect or evinced a discriminatory purpose.” State v. Johnson, COA19-529-2 at 21, 2020 WL 7974001 at *8.
Justice Earls, joined by Justice Morgan, dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that the data collected under G.S. 143B-903, referenced by defendant’s witnesses when discussing the history of the arresting officer’s actions, could support a claim of discriminatory intent without additional benchmarking statistics. The dissent also would have held that defendant’s evidence represented a prima facie showing of discrimination.
Justices Berger and Dietz did not participate in consideration or decision of the case.