Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

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The Court of Appeals released several opinions yesterday. The most significant may be State v. Wallace, an assault case involving remarkable and disturbing facts and difficult legal questions.

The victim, a 79-year-old man, and one of the defendants, a 66-year-old woman, became neighbors when the victim sold the defendant some of his land. A boundary dispute ensued, and feelings ran high. Compressing the facts a bit, the victim was in his yard one day when his neighbor and her 40-year-old daughter attacked him. They pulled him to the ground, bound his hands and feet, and placed a plastic bag over his head. He was able to make a hole in the bag, so the women tried, unsuccessfully, to cram it into his mouth. They proceeded to beat the victim with their hands and with tree limbs for over an hour, until they became exhausted.

During the respite, the victim begged for his life, and passed out. When he awoke, the defendants asked him to sign a statement saying that the land in question was theirs. He did so, and the defendants then became “extremely gentle,” washed his wounds, and helped him to his truck. He called the police. The defendants were charged with first-degree kidnapping, attempted first-degree murder, and AWDWIKISI. A jury convicted each of them of AWDWISI.

On appeal, the daughter argued that the evidence was insufficient to show that she employed a deadly weapon. The indictment alleged that she had used a “Large Limb, Fist and Plastic Bag over [the victim’s] head.” The Court of Appeals focused mainly on the daughter’s use of her fists, first observing that “an acting in concert instruction was not requested by the State nor given to the jury . . . Therefore, we must determine whether [the daughter], individually, employed a deadly weapon during the assault.” It then noted that a defendant’s fists may be a deadly weapon “depending on the manner in which they were used and the relative size and condition of the parties.” The court concluded that although the daughter was female and the victim was male, and although he was both taller and heavier than she, the jury could reasonably have concluded that her fists were deadly weapons given the victim’s age and the fact that the daughter was assisted by her mother. The court stated that “together [the two women] outweighed [the victim] by approximately 72 pounds. . . . [W]hile we are here deciding whether sufficient evidence was presented tending to show [the daughter], individually, employed a deadly weapon . . . that does not preclude us from considering the fact that [her mother] assisted [her] in knocking [the victim] to the ground and rendering him completely incapacitated during the assault.” This part of the court’s analysis suggests that the mother’s assistance counts as part of the “manner in which [the daughter’s fists] were used,” a very expansive interpretation of the law. It seems more accurate to describe the mother’s assistance as a circumstance under which the daughter’s fists were used, but the outcome is probably right regardless, based on the victim’s advanced age and health problems alone.

The mother raised a different argument, contending that there was insufficient evidence that she, as opposed to her daughter, had inflicted serious injuries upon the victim. The court rejected this argument, too, based on the victim’s testimony that both defendants participated in the beating and on expert testimony regarding the seriousness of the victim’s injuries. To be fair to the mother’s argument, none of the evidence relied on by the court showed that the specific blows she struck resulted in the victim’s injuries, but the court appeared to view this as hypertechnical. In any event, it appears to be an issue that the state can prevent in future cases by requesting an acting in concert instruction.

I’d be curious to hear readers’ takes on this case. Which defendant had the stronger argument? Anyone excited about, or troubled by, the court’s disposition of the deadly weapon issue?

One comment on “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

  1. Excellent analysis, although to be completely fair, the victim wasn’t exactly in his yard — based on the facts as described in the State’s brief, he was about two miles from his house, near the disputed boundary line. You did say you were compressing the facts a bit, though!

    I don’t think that the Court moved the ball as far down the field with respect to the deadly weapon issue as you might think. The case law clearly says that whether or not a weapon is deadly can depend more on how its used and the condition of the person being assaulted than on the intrinsic nature of the weapon itself — the Court cited State v. Smith (186 NC App 57) for that proposition.

    Having said that, as you said, the case would have been a LOT more straightforward with an acting in concert instruction.

    With respect to the mother, she insisted in her brief that there was NO evidence that she used any weapon but the plastic bag. As the Court said, that simply wasn’t true — there was ample evidence in the record that showed the mother struck the victim with the tree limbs. The causation issue was a bit more interesting, and the Court appeared to give it short shrift. But there again, an acting in concert instruction would have solved any proof problems (and would almost always be given in a case like this, anyway).

    Thanks for covering this case. Fascinating issues.

    BTW, I’ve found the NC electronic filings website to be very useful for accessing the briefs in appellate cases. It’s at http://www.ncappellatecourts.org. Check it out!

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