State v. Best, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 18, 2020)

Defendant filed an MAR challenging his 1993 convictions and death sentence for burglary, rape, armed robbery, and two counts of first-degree murder. The MAR alleged that the state failed to disclose material and exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady. At his original trial, the state’s primary evidence against the defendant included his fingerprint on a knife found next to one victim’s body, a partial DNA match between the defendant and a semen sample recovered from one of the victims, and testimony from a witness that the defendant spent a large amount of money on drugs shortly after the victims were robbed and murdered. The defendant made several discovery requests prior to trial in 1993, but the evidence at issue in this MAR was not produced. Part of the additional evidence was voluntarily provided to postconviction counsel in 2011, while other evidence was located by defense counsel in the attic of Whiteville City Hall. The undisclosed evidence fell into four categories: (i) forensic testing on additional hair, fiber, fingerprint, and blood samples that were not a match to the defendant; (ii) a prior interview with the testifying witness in which she said the defendant had only a small amount of money on him around the time of the crimes; (iii) reports about glass particles found in the defendant’s shoes that did not match the broken window glass at the crime scene, and additional cash found in the victim’s purse; and (iv) investigative materials on two undisclosed alternate suspects.

The trial court denied the MAR, finding that the defendant failed to show prejudice, and the defendant appealed. On review, the state Supreme Court considered how the undisclosed evidence could have been used to either negate or cast doubt upon the principal evidence offered by the state, and was “sufficiently disturbed by the extent of the withheld evidence in this case, and by the materiality of that evidence, that it undermines our confidence in the jury’s verdict.” The trial court’s denial of the MAR was therefore reversed, and the case was remanded with instructions to grant the MAR and order a new trial.

Justice Newby dissented, and would have held that the defendant failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different result even if the additional evidence had been made available at trial.