State v. Bowman, ___ N.C. ___, 831 S.E.2d 316 (Aug. 16, 2019)

On appeal from a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 818 S.E.2d 718 (2018), the Supreme Court held that the trial court violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. In this murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and possession of a firearm by a felon case, the trial judge erred by limiting the defendant’s ability to question the State’s principal witness about whether she expected to receive a favorable plea offer for drug trafficking charges pending in Guilford County in exchange for her testimony against the defendant in Forsyth County. In a voir dire hearing, the defendant showed that prosecutors in the two counties had been in touch by email and discussed a possible plea deal for the witness in Guilford based on her testimony at the defendant’s trial. By limiting the witness’s testimony about this possible deal, the trial court prohibited the jury from considering evidence that could have shown bias on the witness’s part, and thus violated the defendant’s confrontation rights. The court distinguished previous cases in which it had deemed similar errors harmless, reasoning that this involved a limit on the testimony of the State’s principal witness. Moreover there was no physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime and no other witness placing him at the scene. As a result, the court concluded that the trial judge’s error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision to vacate the verdict and order a new trial.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Newby, dissented, writing that the trial judge allowed ample cross-examination of the witness about her pending charges in Guilford County, and that the limitations the court imposed were an appropriate exercise of its discretion to control the scope and extent of cross-examination to prevent confusion and eliminate undue repetition.