In recent years there has been a spate of cases assessing the sufficiency of the evidence in murder prosecutions where the State’s case is built on circumstantial evidence. A recent decision by the court of appeals in State v. Carver should make prosecutors happy while frustrating the defense.
The majority described the facts of Carver as follows. The victim was found dead near her car on the shore of the Catawba River. The defendant and his cousin were fishing nearby. The victim had been strangled with a ribbon from a gift bag in her car, the drawstring of her sweatshirt, and a bungee cord similar to one in her trunk. DNA samples from the car matched to the defendant and his cousin. When the defendant was confronted with this evidence, he denied, as he repeatedly had done before, ever seeing or touching the victim or her car. Despite his statements that he had never seen the victim, the defendant told officers that the victim was a “little thing” and demonstrated her height relative to his own.
After a jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder, he appealed arguing that there was insufficient evidence that he perpetrated the murder. A divided panel of the court of appeals disagreed and upheld the conviction. The majority found persuasive State v. Miller, 289 N.C. 1 (1975), a case it characterized as holding that “the existence of physical evidence establishing a defendant’s presence at the crime scene, combined with the defendant’s statement that he was never present at the crime scene and the absence of any evidence that defendant was ever lawfully present at the crime scene, permits the inference that the defendant committed the crime and left the physical evidence during the crime’s commission.” It thus concluded: the defendant’s “denial and the DNA’s contradiction thereof . . . are sufficient to establish that the DNA could only have been left at the time the offense was committed.” Although no evidence of motive was presented, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that lack of motive supported his appeal.
Judge Hunter dissented, concluding that the absence of evidence of motive and opportunity were fatal to the State’s case. Judge Hunter noted facts not mentioned by the majority. Specifically, when the police responded to the scene, they saw the defendant loading fishing equipment into his car but did not question him at that time. The defendant later returned to the scene and asked police if he could retrieve fishnets he left while fishing earlier. He was denied access. At least five other people were near the area, one of whom discovered the victim’s body. No DNA sample was taken from the man who discovered the body. Only after the police canvassed surrounding areas did a detective speak to the defendant at his home and learn that he was fishing near where the victim was found. The defendant was not arrested or identified as a suspect at this time. Hunter noted that no evidence indicated that the defendant traveled the path between his fishing location and the victim’s car, placed him in the car, connected him to the items used to kill the victim, or indicated that he ever touched the victim. Furthermore, the coroner could not determine the time of death, making it, in Hunter’s view, unreasonable for a jury to have inferred that the victim died in the time frame when the defendant was fishing on the river. Hunter took issue with the majority’s emphasis on the fact that the defendant’s DNA was found on the victim’s vehicle. He criticized the majority for failing to mention that the DNA was touch DNA and only placed the defendant on the outside of the car. He characterized touch DNA, which is gathered from skin cells, as being a relatively new testing procedure and not as accurate as blood or saliva DNA testing. He also noted that the defendant’s cousin’s touch DNA was found on the inside of the car.
Judge Hunter did not think Miller was controlling. He read Miller as requiring that fingerprint evidence be “accompanied by substantial evidence of circumstances from which the jury can find that the fingerprints could only have been impressed at the time the crime was committed” before allowing the inference that the defendant must have been present during the commission of the crime. Here, the only evidence indicating that the defendant left the touch DNA on the car at the time of the murder is that he happened to be fishing near the location where the victim’s body was found. There was no other evidence tying the defendant to the crime scene. Moreover, Hunter found Miller distinguishable in that it involved fingerprint evidence not touch DNA. He noted that the defendant’s touch DNA could have been left on the car through secondary skin cell transfer by another person, something that can’t happen with fingerprints. Also, citing testimony by the State’s expert witness, Hunter concluded that touch DNA simply isn’t as reliable as fingerprint evidence. He stated: “With such little guidance on the accuracy of touch DNA combined with the fact that the defendant’s touch DNA was found on the outside of the victim’s mobile car and could have been left at any time, I cannot apply the rule in Miller here because I cannot equate fingerprint and touch DNA analysis.” For these reasons, Judge Hunter concluded that the State’s evidence presented only a suspicion or conjecture of guilt that the defendant alone murdered the victim.
This case is a clear win for the State. But the dissent makes champagne popping by the prosecution premature as there will likely be an appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court. In the meantime, if you’d like to review related cases decided in recent years, see my Criminal Case Compendium here. Look under the heading Criminal; Motions; Motions to Dismiss; Defendant as Perpetrator.