State v. Ballard, 283 N.C. App. 236 (May. 3, 2022)

In this Brunswick County case, the defendant appealed from an order denying his motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) filed after his conviction for robbery with a firearm and related offenses. The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by (1) denying his MAR because law enforcement’s loss of an eyewitness statement was a Brady violation; (2) denying his MAR because the State presented false testimony, (3) failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on his claims, and (4) barring the defendant from filing future MARs.

(1) The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling deny the defendant’s due process claim under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), that the State suppressed favorable evidence. Noting that to establish a Brady violation, the defendant must show that the suppressed evidence was material, the Court of Appeals concluded that the lost statement from an eyewitness did not meet this standard. Central to the Court’s conclusion was trial counsel’s ability to cross-examine the witness about inconsistencies in his statements and to impeach him with other testimony.

(2) The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying the defendant’s due process claim under Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S .264 (1959), that the State knowingly presented false evidence. The Court concluded that the record did not support the defendant’s contention that the State knew testimony from one of the eyewitness victims was false as opposed to simply inconsistent with other testimony.

(3) The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred by failing to grant an evidentiary hearing on the defendant’s IAC claims as the defendant stated facts that, if true, would entitle him to relief. Focusing its analysis on defendant’s claim that trial counsel failed to investigate a known alibi witness – defendant’s son, who claimed to have been with him the morning of the crime – the Court noted that the record did not reveal whether defendant’s trial counsel made a strategic decision not to investigate this alibi witness. The Court reasoned that this factual issue could only be appropriately resolved at an evidentiary hearing.

(4) The Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s ruling that the defendant’s failure to assert other grounds in his MAR “shall be treated in the future as a BAR to any other motions for appropriate relief [in this case].” The Court relied upon its holding in State v. Blake, 275 N.C. App. 699 (2020), that G.S. 15A-1419 does not authorize a trial court to bar MAR claims in advance and that gatekeeper orders normally are entered only when a defendant has previously asserted numerous frivolous claims. The Court noted that the current case was not one in which the defendant had filed many frivolous MARs asserting the same claims.

Judge Murphy concurred, with the exception of a sole paragraph discussing precedent from other jurisdictions related to whether an attorney’s representation is deficient for failing to contact and interview prospective alibi witnesses. Judge Griffin concurred by separate opinion, expressing his disagreement with North Carolina Supreme Court precedent requiring an evidentiary hearing on the defendant’s IAC claim, which he said was not supported by statute and allowed a petitioning party to take away the gatekeeping function of the trial judge.