State v. Borum, 505PA20, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 6, 2023)

In this Mecklenburg County case, the Supreme Court reversed an unpublished Court of Appeals decision and affirmed the trial court’s sentencing of defendant at the Class B1 felony level for second-degree murder. 

In February of 2019, defendant went on trial for first-degree murder for shooting a man during a protest. During the jury charge conference, the trial court explained the three theories of malice applicable to the case: actual malice, condition of mind malice, and depraved-heart malice. The verdict form required the jury to identify which type of malice supported the verdict. When the jury returned a verdict of guilty for second-degree murder, all three types of malice were checked on the verdict form. At sentencing, defendant’s attorney argued that he should receive a Class B2 sentence, as depraved-heart malice was one of the three types of malice identified by the jury. The trial court disagreed, and sentenced defendant as Class B1. The Court of Appeals reversed this holding, determining the verdict was ambiguous and construing the ambiguity in favor of the defendant.

Reviewing defendant’s appeal, the Supreme Court found no ambiguity in the jury’s verdict. Explaining the applicable law under G.S. 14-17(b), the court noted that depraved-heart malice justified sentencing as Class B2, while the other two types of malice justified Class B1. Defendant argued that he should not be sentenced as Class B1 if there were facts supporting a Class B2 sentence. The court clarified the appropriate interpretation of the statute, holding that where “the jury’s verdict unambiguously supports a second-degree murder conviction based on actual malice or condition of mind malice, a Class B1 sentence is required, even when depraved-heart malice is also found.” Id. at 7. The language of the statute supported this conclusion, as “the statute plainly expresses that a person convicted of second-degree murder is only sentenced as a Class B2 felon where the malice necessary to prove the murder conviction is depraved-heart malice . . . this means that a Class B2 sentence is only appropriate where a second-degree murder conviction hinges on the jury’s finding of depraved-heart malice.” Id. at 11. The court explained that “[h]ere . . . depraved-heart malice is not necessary—or essential—to prove [defendant’s] conviction because the jury also found that [defendant] acted with the two other forms of malice.” Id. at 11-12.