State v. Abbitt and Albarran, 334A21, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023)

In this Rowan County case, the Supreme Court majority affirmed the Court of Appeals decision upholding the exclusion of evidence offered by defendants to show other individuals committed the crimes for which defendants were convicted. Defendants were jointly tried and convicted of first-degree murder, attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, and assault with a deadly weapon. 

In May of 2016, defendants came to an apartment with the eventual murder victim, apparently searching for money owed by the woman to the defendants. The murder victim's mother and three-year-old son were also in the apartment. Defendants searched the bedroom, and after not finding the money, shot the woman in the head, killing her. The woman’s mother witnessed the events, and was at one point struck in the face by one of the defendants. The mother was able to identify defendants to the police and also testified identifying them at trial. During the trial, the State filed a motion in limine to exclude mention of the possible guilt of two other individuals that defendants argued were responsible for the crimes. Defendants’ evidence involved the identification of another woman who looked similar to one of the defendants, possessed a gun of the same caliber as the murder weapon, and drove a vehicle that matched a description from a confidential informant of a vehicle present at the scene. The trial court granted the motion in limine, ruling that the proffered evidence was not inconsistent with the guilt of the defendants. The trial court relied on the applicable test under State v. Cotton, 318 N.C. 663 (1987), where evidence implicating the guilt of others “‘must tend both to implicate another and be inconsistent with the guilt of the defendant.’” Slip Op. at 7. 

The Supreme Court reviewed defendants’ appeal de novo, and noted that the parties agreed that the evidence in question was relevant, meaning the only consideration in front of the Court was whether the evidence was inconsistent with defendants’ guilt. The Court looked to State v. McNeill, 326 N.C. 712 (1990), for explanation of the relevant standard, emphasizing that the evidence must show another person actually committed the crimes instead of defendants, not just that another person had the opportunity to commit the crimes. Walking through the evidence, the Court concluded that “while defendants’ proffered evidence implicates other suspects which were suggested by defendants, such evidence does not exculpate defendants.” Slip Op. at 23. The Court explained that because the evidence did not tend to show the innocence of either defendant, it did not satisfy the applicable test and was inadmissible. 

Justice Earls dissented by separate opinion and would have allowed the admission of the excluded evidence. Id. at 25.