State v. Alexander, 380 N.C. 572 (Mar. 11, 2022)

In this Warren County case, the defendant moved for postconviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269 more than two decades after pleading guilty to second-degree murder. The trial court determined that the defendant had failed to show that the requested testing would be material to his defense. The Court of Appeals majority concluded that the General Assembly’s use of the word “verdict” in G.S. 15A-269 did not limit the statute’s application to cases decided by a jury, but ultimately affirmed the trial court’s decision that the defendant here failed to make the necessary showing of materiality to grant his request for postconviction DNA testing. State v. Alexander, 271 N.C. App. 77 (2020). The Supreme Court allowed the defendant’s petition for discretionary review and affirmed the Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court began by considering as a question of first impression whether defendants who pled guilty are eligible to seek postconviction DNA testing. Like the Court of Appeals, the Court concluded that the statute’s use of the term “verdict” was not intended to limit the law’s application to defendants convicted after a jury trial. Likewise, the law’s reference to “defense” did not exclude defendants who pled guilty. Slip op. ¶ 38 (“[A] defendant’s ‘defense’ may evolve in light of newly available DNA evidence. As a result, the statutory reference to the defendant’s ‘defense’ does not, without more, satisfy us that the General Assembly intended to limit the availability of postconviction DNA testing to defendants who were convicted at the conclusion of a contested trial on the issue of guilt or innocence.”). In light of the statute’s title and purpose and the fact that some innocent people plead guilty for understandable reasons (like avoiding the death penalty), the Court held that the Court of Appeals did not err in determining that a defendant who pleads guilty can nonetheless seek postconviction DNA testing under G.S. 15A-269.

Nevertheless, on the merits of the defendant’s request for postconviction DNA testing, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that the defendant failed to make a sufficient showing of the materiality of any evidence that would be obtained through the testing. The Court concluded that the Court of Appeals applied the correct legal standard in analyzing materiality—that is, whether, in response to the test results, there was a “reasonable probability” that the defendant would have refrained from pleading guilty and obtained a more favorable verdict at any ensuing trial. The Supreme Court reasoned that the discovery of any third-party DNA on the shell casings and projectile found at the crime scene would not likely have changed the outcome because it would not contradict other evidence in the case; rather, it would merely indicate that someone else touched the shell casing and projectile at some point in time, for some reason not necessarily related to the crime.

Chief Justice Newby concurred in the result, writing that in light of the statute’s use of the words “defense” and “verdict,” a defendant who pleads guilty should not be able to make a postconviction motion to test DNA under G.S. 15A-269.

Justice Earls concurred in part and dissented in part, writing that she agreed with the majority’s conclusion that defendants who plead guilty are eligible to seek postconviction DNA testing, but that the majority’s materiality analysis placed too high a burden on the defendant. The evidence Alexander sought might not have conclusively established his innocence, but it might have demonstrated a reasonable probability that he would not have pled guilty to second-degree murder and would not have been convicted had he proceeded to trial—which is, she wrote, all the burden he must carry at this stage.