State v. Blake, 275 N.C. App. 699 (Dec. 31, 2020)

The defendant was indicted for one count of second-degree murder arising out of a fight at a party in which the victim was stabbed and later died. After a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. The jury indicated that the verdict was unanimous, and assented to the verdict again when the jurors were individually polled. However, during the judge’s parting remarks to the jury and before the judgment was entered, a majority of the jurors disclosed that they did not believe the state’s witnesses and they were not sure of the defendant’s guilt, but they voted guilty anyway because “that man died, so someone needs to go to prison.” The jurors’ comments were not recorded at the time, but were reconstructed on the record during a conference in chambers the next day. The defense moved to set aside the verdict, based on the jurors’ statements and other grounds, and the motion was denied. The defendant appealed, arguing that jury’s disregard of the court’s instructions on reasonable doubt constituted structural error.

The Court of Appeals conducted a de novo review and unanimously agreed, reversing the conviction. The court explained that structural error is a rare form of constitutional error that occurs when there is a defect in the trial mechanism that is so serious that the trial cannot reliably serve as a vehicle for determining guilt or innocence. U.S. Supreme Court precedent has established that only a limited number of errors rise to the level of being structural error, but the appellate court held that “the circumstances here present the same type of constitutional error present in some of those cases” because the defendant has a constitutional right to a verdict based upon a determination of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On appeal, the defendant was not required to demonstrate prejudice resulting from this type of error; instead, the burden was on the state to demonstrate that the structural error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, which the state failed to do. 

The appellate court rejected the state’s argument that this analysis was an impermissible inquiry into the validity of jury’s verdict, in violation of Rule 606. In this case, the trial judge had immediate concerns about the jury’s verdict and discussed it with them in open court, confirming that a majority of the jurors had voted for guilt despite their doubts about the defendant’s guilt. Additionally, the jury’s misconduct went “to the very heart of the defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence and the requirement that he be convicted only upon proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’” In the court’s view, these facts distinguished the case from the type of post-trial “inquiry” based on “mere suspicion” contemplated by Rule 606 and addressed in prior cases.

The defendant had also filed an MAR within 10 days after the trial, raising similar arguments to those made on appeal. The trial court denied the MAR, and the defendant appealed that denial. The appellate court vacated the ruling denying the MAR for the reasons given above, but also clarified that the portion of the trial court’s order which purported to bar the defendant from raising arguments in a future MAR was erroneous.  G.S. 15A-1419(a) provides for denial of a motion if the defendant “attempts to raise an issue in a MAR which has previously been determined if he was in the position to raise it in a prior motion or appeal,” but the statute  “does not give a trial court authority to enter a gatekeeper order declaring in advance that a defendant may not, in the future, file an MAR; the determination regarding the merits of any future MAR must be decided based upon that motion.”