State v. Austin, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-494 (Sept. 21, 2021)

In this first-degree murder case, the trial court properly declined to resolve the defendant’s castle doctrine defense before trial, properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss, and properly instructed the jury on the elements of the castle doctrine.

The defendant argued that the trial court erred by refusing to resolve her castle doctrine defense prior to trial because the language of G.S. 14-51.2(e) providing that a person is “immune from civil or criminal liability” when he or she satisfies the castle doctrine criteria suggests that the issue of whether a person qualifies for the defense must be resolved by judge rather than a jury.  Engaging in statutory construction, the court explained through various examples that in the context of the criminal law, the General Statutes use the phrase “immunity from prosecution” when describing the traditional form of immunity equating to a right not to be forced into court to defend oneself.  In contrast, the court explained that the immunity provided by the castle doctrine is “immunity from a conviction and judgment, not the prosecution itself.”  The court bolstered this conclusion by noting that traditional immunities from prosecution typically involve little or no fact determination while the castle doctrine “can involve deeply fact-intensive questions.”

The court went on to conclude that there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could determine that the State had rebutted the castle doctrine’s presumption of reasonable fear and also sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation.  The State’s evidence showed that a bystander saw the defendant in her driveway with a gun standing over the unarmed victim as he pleaded “Please, please, just let me go. Let me go.”  The bystander then saw the defendant take several steps back and shoot the victim in the head from three to six feet away.  In the light most favorable to the State, this was sufficient evidence to overcome the defendant’s motions to dismiss based on both the castle doctrine and a lack of premeditation and deliberation.

Finally, the court determined that the trial court did not err in its instruction to the jury concerning the castle doctrine.  The jury instruction used language mirroring that of G.S. 14-51.2 and was crafted with significant input from the parties.  While the instruction specifically identified only the criteria of G.S. 14-51.2(c)(5) as an avenue for rebutting the defendant’s presumption of fear, it did not, consistent with state law on the issue, instruct that the criteria of subsection (c)(5) was the only means of rebuttal and instead left the issue for the jury’s determination based on the facts of the case.