State v. Brichikov, 2022-NCSC-140, ___ N.C. ___ (Dec. 16, 2022)

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision granting defendant a new trial because the trial court declined to provide his requested jury instruction on involuntary manslaughter.

In 2018, defendant met his wife at a motel in Raleigh known for drug use and illegal activity; both defendant and his wife were known to be heavy drug users, and defendant’s wife had just been released from the hospital after an overdose that resulted in an injury to the back of her head. After a night of apparent drug use, defendant fled the motel for Wilmington, and defendant’s wife was found dead in the room they occupied. An autopsy found blunt force trauma to her face, head, neck, and extremities, missing and broken teeth, atherosclerosis of her heart, and cocaine metabolites and fentanyl in her system. Defendant conceded that he assaulted his wife during closing arguments. Defense counsel requested jury instructions on voluntary and involuntary manslaughter, including involuntary manslaughter under a theory of negligent omission, arguing that the victim may have died from defendant’s failure to render or obtain aid for her after an overdose. The trial court did not provide instructions on either voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, over defense counsel’s objections.

On appeal, the Supreme Court considered the issues raised by the Court of Appeals dissent, (1) whether the trial court committed error by failing to provide an instruction on involuntary manslaughter, and (2) did any error represent prejudice “in light of the jury’s finding that defendant’s offense was ‘especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel.’” Slip Op. at 15. The court found that (1) the trial court erred because a juror could conclude “defendant had acted with culpable negligence in assaulting his wife and leaving her behind while she suffered a drug overdose or heart attack that was at least partially exacerbated by his actions, but that it was done without malice.” Id. at 21. Exploring (2), the court explained “where a jury convicts a criminal defendant of second-degree murder in the absence of an instruction on a lesser included offense, appellate courts are not permitted to infer that there is no reasonable possibility that the jury would have convicted the defendant of the lesser included offense on the basis of that conviction.” Id. at 22, citing State v. Thacker, 281 N.C. 447 (1972). The court did not find the “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” aggravating factor dispositive, as it noted “finding that a criminal defendant committed a homicide offense in an especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel way does not require a finding that he acted with malice in bringing about his victim’s death.” Id. at 24. Instead, the court found prejudicial error in the lack of involuntary manslaughter instruction.

Justice Berger, joined by Chief Justice Newby and Justice Barringer, dissented and would have upheld defendant’s conviction for second-degree murder. Id. at 27.