This post summarizes criminal decisions released by the Supreme Court of North Carolina on March 11, 2022.
The trial court did not abuse its discretion in imposing a special condition of probation.
State v. Medlin, 2022-NCSC-25, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 11, 2022). In this Cabarrus County case involving a defendant convicted of obtaining property by false pretenses, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals, 2021-NCCOA-313, which had concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in imposing a special condition of probation under G.S. 15A-1343. Though not discussed in the Supreme Court’s opinion, the special condition at issue was that the defendant not have any contact with the victim—his mother-in-law, who also had legal custody of his three children. The defendant had argued that a probation condition forbidding all contact with his mother-in-law would conflict with the terms of his child custody order, which allowed limited visitation with his children each week. Highlighting the Court of Appeals’ observation that trial judges have substantial discretion in devising probation conditions, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s conclusion that the condition was reasonably related to protection of the victim and the defendant’s rehabilitation.
(1) A defendant who pled guilty is eligible to seek postconviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269. (2) The defendant did not establish the materiality of the evidence he sought through postconviction DNA testing.
State v. Alexander, 2022-NCSC-26, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 11, 2022). In this Warren County case, the defendant moved for postconviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269 more than two decades after pleading guilty to second-degree murder. The trial court determined that the defendant had failed to show that the requested testing would be material to his defense. The Court of Appeals majority concluded that the General Assembly’s use of the word “verdict” in G.S. 15A-269 did not limit the statute’s application to cases decided by a jury, but ultimately affirmed the trial court’s decision that the defendant here failed to make the necessary showing of materiality to grant his request for postconviction DNA testing. State v. Alexander, 271 N.C. App. 77 (2020). The Supreme Court allowed the defendant’s petition for discretionary review and affirmed the Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court began by considering as a question of first impression whether defendants who pled guilty are eligible to seek postconviction DNA testing. Like the Court of Appeals, the Court concluded that the statute’s use of the term “verdict” was not intended to limit the law’s application to defendants convicted after a jury trial. Likewise, the law’s reference to “defense” did not exclude defendants who pled guilty. Slip op. ¶ 38 (“[A] defendant’s ‘defense’ may evolve in light of newly available DNA evidence. As a result, the statutory reference to the defendant’s ‘defense’ does not, without more, satisfy us that the General Assembly intended to limit the availability of postconviction DNA testing to defendants who were convicted at the conclusion of a contested trial on the issue of guilt or innocence.”). In light of the statute’s title and purpose and the fact that some innocent people plead guilty for understandable reasons (like avoiding the death penalty), the Court held that the Court of Appeals did not err in determining that a defendant who pleads guilty can nonetheless seek postconviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269.
Nevertheless, on the merits of the defendant’s request for postconviction DNA testing, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the defendant failed to make a sufficient showing of the materiality of any evidence that would be obtained through the testing. The Court concluded that the Court of Appeals applied the correct legal standard in analyzing materiality—that is, whether, in response to the test results, there was a “reasonable probability” that the defendant would have refrained from pleading guilty and obtained a more favorable verdict at any ensuing trial. The Supreme Court reasoned that the discovery of any third-party DNA on the shell casings and projectile found at the crime scene would not likely have changed the outcome because it would not contradict other evidence in the case; rather, it would merely indicate that someone else touched the shell casing and projectile at some point in time, for some reason not necessarily related to the crime.
Chief Justice Newby concurred in the result, writing that in light of the statute’s use of the words “defense” and “verdict,” a defendant who pleads guilty should not be able to make a postconviction motion to test DNA under G.S. 15A-269.
Justice Earls concurred in part and dissented in part, writing that she agreed with the majority’s conclusion that defendants who plead guilty are eligible to seek postconviction DNA testing, but that the majority’s materiality analysis placed too high a burden on the defendant. The evidence Alexander sought might not have conclusively established his innocence, but it might have demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would not have pled guilty to second-degree murder and would not have been convicted had he proceeded to trial—which is, she wrote, all the burden he must carry at this stage.
An attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon indictment was not fatally defective for failing to include the name of a specific victim.
State v. Oldroyd, 2022-NCSC-27, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 11, 2022). In this Yadkin County case, a defendant pled guilty to second-degree murder, attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon in 2013. The defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief asserting that the indictment for the attempted robbery charge was fatally defective in that it did not include the name of a victim, but rather described the victims as “employees of the Huddle House” located at a particular address. The trial court denied the motion. A divided panel of the Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant. State v. Oldroyd, 271 N.C. App. 544 (2020). The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the indictment sufficiently informed the defendant of the crime he was accused of and protected him from being twice put in jeopardy for the same offense. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument, based on cases decided before the enactment of the Criminal Procedure Act of 1975, that indictments for crimes against a person must “state with exactitude” the name of a person against whom the offense was committed. The Court also distinguished prior cases finding indictments defective when they named the wrong victim or did not name any victim at all. Under the modern requirements of G.S. 15A-924(a)(5), the Court concluded that the attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon charge here was not defective. Therefore, the Court reversed the Court of Appeals and reinstated the trial court order denying the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief.
(1) The trial court did not err by declining to give the defendant’s requested jury instruction on self-defense. (2) The defendant’s argument regarding his request for an instruction on a presumption of reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm was not preserved for appellate review.
State v. Benner, 2022-NCSC-28, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 11, 2022). In this Davidson County case, the defendant was convicted after a jury trial of first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon after he shot and killed a man who was visiting his home. The trial judge rejected the defendant’s request for an instruction under N.C.P.I.—Crim. 308.10, which informs the jury that a defendant who is situated in his own home and is not the initial aggressor can stand his or her ground and repel force with force regardless of the character of the assault being made upon the defendant. The State had objected to the defendant’s request because it is based on a statutory right of self-defense in G.S. 14-51.2 and -51.3 that is not available to a person “attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of a felony,” and the defendant here was committing the felony of possession of firearm by felon when he shot the victim. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial judge erred by refusing his requested instruction. The Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the trial court’s refusal, writing that it was bound by its prior decision in State v. Crump, 259 N.C. App. 144 (2018), which had held that the statutory self-defense rights at issue were not available to a defendant committing a felony even when there was no “causal connection” between that felony and the defendant’s need to use force in self-defense. State v. Benner, 276 N.C. App. 275, 2021-NCCOA-79 (unpublished). The Supreme Court allowed the defendant’s petition for discretionary review.
The Supreme Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s refusal to instruct the jury in accordance with N.C.P.I.—Crim. 308.10 deprived the defendant of a complete self-defense instruction, because the court concluded that the instruction the trial court gave adequately conveyed the substance of the defendant’s request. The Court saw no material difference between the trial court’s instruction that the defendant had “no duty to retreat” and the defendant’s requested instruction that he could “stand [his] ground.” Slip op. ¶ 27. Moreover, the Court did not view the given instruction’s lack of language concerning the defendant’s right to “repel force with force regardless of the character of the assault” as problematic in light of the given instruction, which (unlike instructions in prior cases which the Court distinguished) did not tell the jury that the defendant was not entitled to use a firearm to protect himself from death or great bodily injury by an unarmed assailant. The Court concluded that the trial court therefore did not err. But even if the trial court did err in rejecting the defendant’s request, the Court added, the defendant failed to establish a reasonable probability that a different result would have been reached in the absence of the error in light of the instruction the trial judge gave, as well as the “more than sufficient” evidence that the defendant used excessive force.
Having decided the case on that ground, the Court did not reach the issue of the trial court’s application of the commission-of-a-felony disqualification from the self-defense statutes at issue. The Court did, however, note that a refusal to instruct on that basis “may be inconsistent with [G.S.] 14-51.2(g), which upholds the continued validity of the common law with respect to the exercise of one’s right to defend one’s habitation, as well as [the Court’s recent] decision in [State v.] McLymore [summarized here by Phil Dixon on February 15, 2022].” Id. ¶ 26.
Finally, the Court concluded that the defendant’s argument regarding the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury on the defendant’s presumption of reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm was not properly preserved for appellate review under Rule of Appellate Procedure 10(a)(2).
The Court thus affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Justice Hudson, joined by Justice Earls, dissented, writing that the trial judge erred by not giving the requested instruction. She wrote that the defendant was not barred from the statutory justification for defensive force in G.S. 14-51.2 and -51.3 by virtue of his commission of the felony offense of possession of firearm by felon in light of the Court’s recent ruling in State v. McLymore, supra, holding that there must be an immediate causal nexus between the felony and the circumstances giving rise to the defendant’s perceived need to use force for the disqualification to apply. She went on to write that the given instruction’s omission of language indicating that the defendant could stand his ground and repel force with force “regardless of the character assault” was a meaningful substantive difference between it and the requested instruction. As such, she would have held that the trial court and the Court of Appeals erred, and that the error was prejudicial.
The trial court properly applied the multi-factor test for evaluating an MAR based on newly discovered evidence.
State v. Reid, 2022-NCSC-29, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 11, 2022). In this Lee County case, the trial judge granted a motion for appropriate relief and awarded a new trial for a defendant who was convicted of first-degree murder committed when he was fourteen years old, largely on the basis of a confession made during a police interrogation conducted outside the presence of a parent or guardian. Years later, postconviction counsel located a new witness who claimed a different person had confessed to the crime, exculpating the defendant. The trial court found the new witness’s testimony credible and granted the MAR based on the newly discovered evidence and ordered a new trial. The Court of Appeals reversed, saying the trial court abused its discretion and erred in granting a new trial, in that the defendant’s affidavit failed multiple prongs of the seven-factor test for evaluating newly discovered evidence set forth in State v. Beaver, 291 N.C. 137 (1976). State v. Reid, 274 N.C. App. 100 (2020).
After allowing the defendant’s petition for discretionary review, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the trial court properly applied the Beaver test. First, the trial court did not err in concluding that the newly discovered evidence was “probably true,” despite the inconsistencies in the new witness’s testimony. It was the factfinder’s role—not the role of the Court of Appeals—to evaluate the credibility of the witness and make findings of fact, which are binding on appeal if supported by the evidence. The Court of Appeals thus erred by reweighing the evidence and making its own findings as to whether the new evidence was “probably true.”
Second, the trial court did not err in finding that the defendant’s trial counsel had exercised due diligence in attempting to procure the newly discovered evidence. The trial court’s findings that an investigator had earlier attempted to find the new witness and that those efforts were unsuccessful due in part to interference by the witness’s mother were supported by the evidence and binding on appeal. The Court noted that the “due diligence” prong of the Beaver test requires “reasonable diligence,” not that the defendant have done “everything imaginable” to procure the purportedly new evidence at trial. Where, as here, neither the defendant nor his lawyer knew whether the sought-after witness actually had any information about the victim’s killing, hiring an investigator was deemed reasonable diligence without the need to take additional steps such as issuing an subpoena or asking for a continuance.
Third, the Court concluded that the trial judge did not err in concluding that the new witness’s testimony was “competent” even though it was hearsay. The evidence was admitted without objection by the State, and was therefore competent. And in any event, the test for competence within the meaning of the Beaver test is not admissibility at the MAR hearing, but rather whether it would be material, competent, and relevant in a future trial if the MAR were granted. Here, the trial court properly concluded that the new witness’s testimony would have been admissible at trial under the residual hearsay exception of Rule 803(24).
Finally, the trial court did not err in concluding that the addition of the newly discovered evidence would probably result in a different outcome in another trial. Though the defendant’s confession was admissible, it was nonetheless the confession of a fourteen-year-old and might therefore receive less probative weight in a case like this where the other evidence of the defendant’s guilt was not overwhelming.
The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for a new trial.
Chief Justice Newby, joined by Justice Barringer, dissented. He wrote that the defendant failed to meet the “due diligence” prong of the Beaver test in that he did not take reasonable action at trial to procure the evidence he later argued was newly discovered. The Chief Justice disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that hiring an investigator was enough. Rather, he wrote, the defense lawyer should have gone to the trial court for assistance in obtaining testimony from the witness (such as through a material witness order), or spoken to other witnesses who likely had the same information (such as the sought-after witness’s brother).