Court of Appeals Holds that State Constitution Prohibits Substitution of Alternate Jurors After Deliberations Begin

When a deliberating juror in Eric Chambers’ April 2022 murder trial told the presiding judge that he could not be available in court the next day because of a medical appointment, the trial judge discharged the juror, substituted an alternate juror, and instructed the jury to restart its deliberations. In doing so, the trial judge followed the procedures set forth in G.S. 15A-1215(a) for substituting an alternate juror after deliberations have begun. Chambers, who represented himself at trial, did not object. The reconstituted jury subsequently found Chambers guilty of first-degree murder and a related felony assault, and the judge sentenced Chambers to life in prison.

Chambers failed to properly enter a notice of appeal and subsequently sought certiorari review by the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The Court granted review and reversed Chambers’ conviction based on the substitution of the alternate juror. State v. Chambers, No. COA22-1063, ___ N.C. App. ___ , ___ S.E.2d ___ (2024). The Court held that notwithstanding statutory amendments to G.S. 15A-1215(a) enacted in 2021 to authorize the substitution of alternate jurors after deliberations begin, it was bound by the North Carolina Supreme Court’s holding in State v. Bunning, 346 N.C. 253 (1997), that substitution of an alternate juror in a capital sentencing proceeding after deliberations began was structural error. This post will review the holding in Chambers, the precedent upon which it relied, and the provisions of G.S. 15A-1215(a) that Chambers, if it remains undisturbed, effectively eviscerates.

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