Presented with an appalling set of facts, the North Carolina Supreme Court unanimously upheld the defendant’s convictions for murder, kidnapping, sex offense, and felony child abuse. The majority affirmed a sentence of death. Justice Berger’s concurring opinion, addressing only a Miranda issue, was joined by four other justices, making it “the supplemental opinion of the Court.” Justice Earls dissented with regard to capital punishment, concluding the defendant was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. This post summarizes the 225-page opinion in Richardson.
Over a period of ten days, the defendant sexually assaulted and severely abused a young girl, designated “Taylor,” who was left in his care when her mother (the defendant’s girlfriend) left the state for military training. On 16 July 2010, the defendant carried Taylor into the emergency room of Johnston Memorial Hospital. Seasoned ER staff were shocked at the extent of the child’s injuries. When the defendant attempted to leave, a nurse forcibly detained him, put him into an exam room, and stood in the doorway until police arrived. Two police officers questioned the defendant at the hospital. He told them he was caring for Taylor while her mother was away, that Tayor had fallen and struck her head the night before, that bite marks had been inflicted by another child, and that Taylor’s other wounds were the result of Taylor scratching herself. Taylor died 19 July 2010, shortly after her fourth birthday. The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head.
A. Motion to disqualify the trial court judge.
The defendant first argued the trial court erred by denying his motion to disqualify superior court judge Thomas H. Lock from involvement in the case. Back in 1992, Judge Lock was the elected district attorney in (then) District 11 and the prosecutor in the trial of the defendant’s mother on charges that she hired someone to kill the defendant’s father. Based on this, the defendant here filed a motion to disqualify Judge Lock from presiding at his trial. Judge Lock referred the motion to another judge, James Floyd Ammons, Jr., who denied it. Before the Supreme Court, the defendant argued Judge Ammons erred by denying the motion, contending Judge Lock’s involvement in the prior case: (1) made him a potential witness for the defense, and (2) created an appearance and risk of bias in the defendant’s murder trial. Slip Op. at 25. The Court disagreed.
Observing that the defendant himself had claimed Judge Lock could offer material mitigating evidence, the Court rejected the defendant’s argument the trial court misapprehended the provisions of Section 15A-1223(e) (a judge must disqualify himself if he is a witness) when he referenced materiality in his order. Slip Op. at 34. Further, the Court found that the defendant had not identified any particular knowledge that Judge Lock could have that would be relevant at the defendant’s trial. Slip Op. at 35. As for the defendant’s claim that Judge Lock’s prior role created a risk of actual bias, the Supreme Court noted that the defendant below had disclaimed any allegation of actual bias. Slip Op. at 38-39. As for the claim that Judge Lock’s prior role created the appearance of bias, the Court concluded that the defendant had not established “the existence of the appearance of impropriety.” Slip Op. at 43.
B. Admissibility of photographic evidence.
The defendant next argued the trial court violated Evidence Rule 403 (trial court may exclude relevant evidence if its probative value is outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice) by admitting eighty-eight color photographs of Taylor’s injuries and by permitting the photographs to be displayed to the jury on a sixty-inch monitor. Slip Op. at 43. The Court disagreed.
The defendant relied on State v. Hennis, 323 N.C. 279 (1988). In Hennis, the trial court permitted the display of thirty-five victim photographs. The images were first projected on a large screen on the wall directly above the defendant’s head, and they were subsequently distributed to the jury in a process that took a full hour and that was unaccompanied by any other testimony. The Supreme Court in Hennis found the admission of the repetitious photographic evidence constituted prejudicial error and awarded the defendant a new trial. Slip Op. at 46-48.
The Supreme Court here found Hennis distinguishable. It noted that the monitor here was smaller than the screen in Hennis, and the location of the display here did not permit the jury to view the images directly above the defendant’s head. Slip Op. at 50-51. It noted the trial court’s careful consideration of the parties’ arguments regarding the placement of the monitor and the method of presentation. Slip Op. at 51-52. It found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s manner of display. As for the defendant’s challenge to the number of photographs and the use of the same photographs to illustrate various witness’ testimony, the Court noted that, unlike in Hennis, every usage of the photographs here was in conjunction with testimony. Slip Op. at 52.
Turning to specific photographs, the Court found each display served to add a component to the State’s case or to corroborate other testimony. Slip Op. at 54-61. As for the defendant’s argument that the admission of eighty-eight photographs was excessive to the point of prejudicial, the Court declared that, “standing alone, the number of photographs offered is not dispositive to the question of their admissibility.” Slip Op. at 62. It noted the State was not only seeking to show the victim’s injuries were horrible – which might have been accomplished with fewer pictures – but was also proceeding on charges of murder by torture, felony murder, and felony child abuse. Slip Op. at 63-64. Similarly, the defendant’s theory of the case (i.e., that the head injury was accidental, that he lacked the intent to torture or cause death) made the number of severity of injuries “central to numerous issues before the jury” including the seriousness of the injuries, the level of pain and suffering, the defendant’s intent, whether there was any break in the sequence of abuse, etc. Slip Op. at 65-66. The Supreme Court concluded that the trial court’s admission of the eighty-eight photographs was not excessive, repetitive, or unduly prejudicial.
C. Emotional reactions from medical and law enforcement personnel.
The defendant next argued the trial court erred by permitting witnesses to testify during the guilt phase about their emotional reactions to seeing Taylor’s injuries. He claimed the evidence was irrelevant and unduly prejudicial. The Court disagreed.
At trial, five of the State’s witnesses, including hospital nurses, attending physicians, and a sheriff’s deputy, testified to their reactions to Taylor’s injuries. Slip Op. at 68-72. Addressing relevance, the Court noted that murder by torture requires proof of torture. The term torture is not statutorily defined, but the Court has approved this definition: a course of conduct which intentionally inflicts grievous pain and suffering upon another for the purpose of punishment, persuasion, or sadistic pleasure. Slip Op. at 73. Felony child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury requires the State to prove serious bodily injury, defined as bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes serious permanent disfigurement, coma, a permanent or protracted condition that causes extreme pain, or permanent or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ, or that results in prolonged hospitalization. Slip Op. at 73. The Court concluded that the challenged testimony was relevant to show the victim’s bodily injuries were “serious” or would have caused “grievous pain and suffering.” Slip Op. at 74-75.
To the extent any portion of the challenged testimony was “technically inadmissible,” the defendant failed to show prejudice. The Court noted the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt and of the victim’s “severe, painful, and ultimately fatal injuries.” Slip Op. at 75-77. For the same reason, the Court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s admission of the evidence under Evidence Rule 403. Slip Op. at 77.
D. Testimony regarding bite marks.
The defendant next argued the trial court erred by allowing Dr. Richard Barbaro, a dentist, to testify as an expert in forensic dentistry about the bite marks on Taylor’s body. He claimed admission of this evidence violated Rules 702 and 403. The Court disagreed. Slip Op. at 78.
When “scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion.” N.C.G.S. § 8C-1, Rule 702(a) (2009). The Court noted that Rule 702 was amended in 2011, but that the earlier version applied to the defendant’s case. It recited the three-step inquiry for evaluating the admissibility of expert testimony: (1) is the expert’s proffered method of proof sufficiently reliable? (2) is the witness qualified as an expert in that area? (3) is the expert’s testimony relevant? Slip Op. at 77-78 (quoting Howerton v. Arai Helmet, 358 N.C. 440 (2004)).
The Court observed that the defendant failed to object to much of Barbaro’s testimony. And while he challenged the expert’s opinion that the bite marks were consistent with the defendant’s dentition, the defendant conceded the State had established he was the only one watching Taylor during the time the bites were inflicted. Given the circumstances, the Court concluded it could not say the admission of the expert’s opinion constituted an abuse of discretion. For the same reason, the Court declined to address the defendant’s arguments on appeal challenging the scientific validity of bite mark identification. Slip Op. at 81-82.
Turning to the Rule 403 argument, the Court found that, in light of other evidence showing that the defendant inflicted the bite marks, admission of the expert’s opinion, even if cumulative, did not likely tip the scales as to convictions or sentences. As for the “inflammatory potential” of Barbaro’s testimony, the Court noted that the expert’s comment that most bite injuries are caused by animals “does not compare defendant to an animal but rather makes a factual statement with which defendant does not disagree.” Further, in light of the facts presented, “the intentionality of the biting is a reasonable inference for any witness to draw.” Finally, when the bite marks were viewed together with the other physical and sexual abuse, the Court could not say the expert’s testimony made a difference in the defendant’s conviction or sentence. Slip Op. at 84.
E. Expert testimony about torture.
The defendant next argued the trial court erred by allowing two physicians to testify on the question of whether Taylor was tortured. The defendant contended that the admission of evidence violated Rules 401, 403, and 702. The Court disagreed. Slip Op. at 84-85.
The Court first noted that the defendant relied on caselaw decided under a later version of Rule 702 than that applicable at his trial. Before the amendment to Rule 702, North Carolina was not a Daubert [v. Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993)] jurisdiction; rather, the admissibility of expert testimony was controlled by Howerton. Slip Op. at 86-89. Further, contrary to the defendant’s suggestion, the physicians were not accepted as experts in torture, but in pediatrics and child abuse. Slip Op. at 89.
In State v. Jennings, 333 N.C. 579 (1993), the Supreme Court noted that the term “torture” is not a legal term of art, and it upheld the admission of expert opinion that the victim had been tortured based on the nature and extent of the victim’s injuries. Slip Op. at 93-94. The Court here observed that nothing in Jennings requires a witness to have any particular training or experience before opining that a victim suffered torture. Slip Op. at 94. It reviewed the testimony of one expert, Dr. Kenya McNeal-Trice, as to the nature and extent of Taylor’s injuries. The Court found no meaningful difference between this case and Jennings, with any distinguishing features favoring admissibility here. Slip Op. at 97-98. Likewise, it reviewed the testimony of the other expert, Dr. Sharon Cooper, who testified at sentencing. Slip Op. at 103-108. It noted that the circumstances surrounding a killing are relevant to the aggravating factor that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel. The Court concluded that the defendant failed to show the trial court abused its discretion by admitting Cooper’s testimony at sentencing. Slip Op. at 110.
F. Defendant’s statements at Johnston Memorial Hospital. [summarized from the controlling concurring opinion of Justice Berger]
The defendant next argued the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress statements he provided to police at the hospital. He claimed his detention by a nurse until police arrived constituted a citizen’s arrest and triggered the protections of Miranda. The Court disagreed.
Under Miranda, a suspect must be advised of his rights before being subjected to custodial interrogation. Custodial interrogation means questioning initiated by law enforcement after a person has been taken into custody. A person is in custody for purposes of Miranda when it is apparent from the totality of the circumstances that there is a formal arrest or restraint on freedom of movement of the degree associated with a formal arrest. The free-to-leave test for a seizure under the Fourth Amendment is not the proper test for custody under Miranda. Slip Op. at 184-85.
The majority posited that a private citizen acting on his or her own authority cannot take a person into custody for purposes of Miranda. It said the inquiry here should focus on whether law enforcement took the defendant into custody when they arrived at the hospital. Slip Op. at 185. The trial court found: the defendant was not placed under arrest, the exam room door was open for portions of the interaction, both officers left the exam room for a time leaving the defendant alone with the door open, the defendant was informed he was not under arrest, the defendant was not promised anything or threatened, and the defendant was not handcuffed or restrained in any way. These findings, the majority said, amply support the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. Slip Op. at 186.
G. Cumulative prejudice.
The defendant next argued the combined effect of the inadmissible evidence compounded the prejudice of each single instance. The Court disagreed. Slip Op. at 129-30. In light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt, “the minimal points of evidence which were even arguably admitted in error, even considered cumulatively, did not prejudice defendant by depriving him of a fair trial.” Slip Op. at 135.
H. Jury selection issues (intentional discrimination).
The defendant next argued the trial court erred by overruling his objections to the State’s use of peremptory challenges during jury selection. The Court disagreed. Slip Op. at 136. Ultimately, it concluded that the defendant had not shown clear error by the trial court in regard to its determination that the defendant failed to establish a prima facia case of racial discrimination when his Batson challenge was raised. Slip Op. at 152. Similarly, it found no error in the trial court’s ruling related to the defendant’s attempt to create a prima facia case of gender-based discrimination. Slip Op. at 156.
I. Jury selection issues (challenges for cause).
The defendant next argued that the trial court erred by excusing two jurors for cause. The Court disagreed. Slip Op. at 156. Ultimately, the Court held that one juror was properly excused based on his concerns regarding capital punishment. Slip Op. at 167. The other juror was properly excused based on his assertion that his experience with substance abuse would impair his ability to be impartial. Slip Op. at 175.
J. In camera review of mental health records.
The defendant asked the Supreme Court to review records sealed in the superior court file to determine if he was denied access to information that was material and favorable to his defense. The Supreme Court examined the records and concluded that the medical records under seal contained no information material to the defendant’s guilt or punishment. Slip Op. at 176-77.
K. Arbitrary capital sentencing system.
The defendant next argued that he received a capital sentence as part of an arbitrary system. The Supreme Court engaged in the proportionality review mandated by Section 15A-2000(d)(2). It noted that it had never found a death sentence disproportionate in a case involving a victim of first-degree murder who was also sexually assaulted. Consequently, the Supreme Court rejected the defendant’s argument that North Carolina’s capital sentencing scheme constitutes cruel and/or unusual punishment. Slip Op. at 177-79.
L. Preservation issues.
The defendant raised five additional issues that he conceded had been decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court contrary to his position. The Court found no reason to revisit or depart from its precedent. Slip Op. at 181-82.
The Supreme Court concluded the defendant received a fair trial and capital sentencing proceeding free of prejudicial error and the death sentence was not excessive or disproportionate.