State v. Bowman, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Nov. 3, 2020)

The defendant was charged with first degree burglary after she was found inside the victims’ home in the early morning hours, having taken items from their cars and placed them inside a purse belonging to one of the homeowners. The defendant appeared to be impaired at the time she was arrested. She claimed during the encounter that, alternatively, she was an emergency medical worker, someone had chased her inside the house, and someone had invited her to the house.

(1) Before making an opening statement, defense counsel notified the court that he would be admitting all of the elements of the charged offense besides intent. The trial court asked the defendant whether she understood and agreed with this decision. She said she did. While defense counsel’s express or implied admission of the defendant’s guilt of a charged offense to the jury without the defendant’s consent is per se ineffective assistance of counsel, such an admission may be made with the defendant’s consent. Here, the trial court had an exchange with the defendant where she expressed her understanding and agreed to admit the elements of felony breaking and entering other than intent. Therefore, even assuming, without deciding, that defense counsel impliedly admitted that defendant was guilty of misdemeanor breaking and entering, that admission was consensual and did not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.

(2) An expert in forensic psychology testified for the defendant that she had diagnosed the defendant with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe alcohol use disorder, severe amphetamine use disorder, and a personality disorder. The expert testified that the defendant admitted to using methamphetamine daily and that such use can result in a methamphetamine-associated psychosis which presents with delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations. The expert characterized the defendant’s symptoms as congruent with this condition.

During closing argument, the prosecutor attacked the expert’s credibility, stating that “‘psychosis is quite convenient as an excuse’” and that the defendant “‘had Dr. James come and testify . . . with the end in mind.’” Slip op. at 14. The prosecutor argued to the jury that the expert was “‘paid by the defense, for the defense, to give good stuff for the defense’” and that “‘[y]ou get what you put out. What you put in, you get out.’” Id. After questioning the utility of Dr. James’s diagnoses of the defendant, the prosecutor remarked to the jury, “‘So I ask you to take that for what it is. At the end of the day, hired by the defense, for the defense, to say good things for the defense . . . .’” Id. The defendant did not object to the remarks. The court of appeals held that the prosecutor’s remarks were improper because they went beyond arguing that the expert witness was potentially biased, which is permissible. Instead, the prosecution impermissibly suggested to the jury that the defendant’s expert was paid to fabricate an excuse for her conduct and acts, regardless of the truth. The court explained:

By arguing that psychosis was an “excuse,” Dr. James testified with an end in mind, Dr. James was paid “to give good stuff for the defense,” and Dr. James was hired “to say good things for the defense,” the prosecutor inappropriately suggested that Dr. James “should not be believed because [s]he would give untruthful or inaccurate testimony in exchange for pay.”

 Slip op. at 14 (quoting, in last clause of last sentence, State v. Huey, 370 N.C. 174, 183 (2017)).

While these remarks were improper, the court of appeals held that in the absence of an objection by the defendant, they were not so grossly improper as to impede the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The court noted that similar remarks had been held not to amount to prejudicial error. Moreover, the court said it could not conclude that the remarks were so prejudicial as to merit a new trial considering the substantial amount of evidence tending to show that the defendant had the requisite intent for first-degree burglary.

(3) The Court vacated the civil judgment for attorney’s fees and remanded the matter to the trial court for a waiver by the defendant or a hearing on the issue. Although at trial the defendant stated she had no objection to the entry of a civil judgment, she did not know at that time the number of hours her appointed counsel planned to submit or what amount she would owe. She was, therefore, deprived of a meaningful opportunity to be heard before the judgment was entered.