State v. Bradley, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-495 (Sept. 21, 2021)

In this first-degree murder case, (1) the trial court did not err by admitting under Rule 404(b) evidence of the disappearance of a person the defendant had been previously convicted of murdering, (2) the defendant was not prejudiced by alleged improper remarks by the prosecution during closing argument, and (3) the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the murder charge for insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation.

(1) At the defendant’s murder trial for killing victim Tucker, the state introduced evidence concerning law enforcement investigation into the disappearance of victim Rippy, a woman the defendant had been previously convicted of murdering but whose body had never been found.  Tucker’s body was discovered during a search of property associated with the defendant by investigators who were looking for Rippy.  The trial court admitted evidence concerning the investigation of Rippy’s disappearance under Rule 404(b) to show the course of the investigation of Tucker’s death, identity, motive, and modus operandi.  On appeal, the defendant argued under the standard of plain error that the evidence concerning Rippy was not sufficiently similar and was so voluminous as to be more prejudicial than probative under Rule 403.  The court first explained various ways in which the challenged evidence of Rippy’s disappearance was introduced for a proper purpose under Rule 404(b), including that it helped provide a full picture of the course of the investigation of Tucker’s death, related to the credibility of witnesses, and cast certain physical evidence in a probative light.  The evidence concerning Rippy also was sufficiently similar to that concerning Tucker as both victims lived around Wilmington; were of the same sex; disappeared within nine months of each other; had legal, financial, and substance abuse problems; relied on the defendant for transportation; had relationships with the defendant; and were subjects of his sexual attention.  Distinguishing State v. Hembree, 368 N.C. 2 (2015), the court further found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence under Rule 403, pointing to the trial court’s deliberate weighing of its probative and prejudicial qualities and appropriate limiting instructions to the jury.

(2) The defendant made several arguments pertaining to alleged trial court errors during the prosecution’s closing arguments. (a) Certain statements about the presence of Tucker’s blood in the defendant’s car were a reasonable inference from evidence introduced at trial, though no DNA samples were recoverable from sections of carpeting that had been shown through testing to contain human blood. (b) Statements that Rippy was deceased did not violate the trial court’s limitation on the state’s use of the defendant’s conviction for her murder and were not made for an improper purpose. (c) The trial court cured improper statements suggesting that defendant bore the burden of proving his own innocence and was responsible for the inclusion of second-degree murder as a lesser-included offense on the verdict sheet, and did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial based upon those statements. (d) The trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu when the prosecution referred to “evil” during closing while displaying a poster that showed the Black defendant alongside the white victims. (e) The alleged improper remarks did not amount to cumulative prejudice.

(3) Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, there was substantial evidence of premeditation and deliberation to support the conviction of first-degree murder.  The nature of Tucker’s injuries from blunt force trauma suggested that the manner of her killing was brutal and thus indicative of premeditation and deliberation.  Premeditation and deliberation also was suggested by evidence of postmortem concealment and undignified treatment of Tucker’s body, as well as the defendant’s efforts to destroy evidence of the murder.