State v. Buchanan, COA22-663, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Mar. 7, 2023)

In this Wake County case, defendant appealed his conviction for involuntary manslaughter, arguing error in the admission of evidence related to defendant’s prior acts of discipline under Rules 403 and 404(b). The Court of Appeals found no error.

In 2019, defendant lived with his then-girlfriend and her five children in Raleigh. In February, they had a dispute over discipline that led to the end of their relationship, and an agreement that defendant would move out and return to Maryland. However, just before defendant was to leave, his girlfriend had a job interview that required her to leave the home for several hours. Defendant was left watching her three youngest children. While she was gone, the youngest child suffered injuries leading to a 911 call. Defendant told paramedics that the child choked on a waffle, but a CT scan at the hospital revealed a skull fracture and hematomas on both sides of the child’s brain, with no sign of obstruction in the airway. Defendant was charged with involuntary manslaughter. At trial, the state moved to admit evidence of three previous episodes of defendant disciplining the children, two of which involved the defendant striking a child. The trial court admitted this evidence over defendant’s objection.

Reviewing defendant’s objection to the evidence, the Court of Appeals found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s decision to admit the evidence under Rules 403 and 404(b). Because defendant did not dispute the findings of fact or conclusions of law on the motion, the issue on appeal was the Rule 403 analysis of whether the danger of unfair prejudice substantially outweighed the probative value of the three episodes. Defendant first argued that the probative value of the three episodes was minimal, although the trial court determined that two of the episodes involved him “striking” the children and the third was “indicative of a temper,” and the events were “probative of the intent . . .the motive . . . the absence of mistake or accident, and malice.” Slip Op. at 6-7. The court found that the trial court handled the unfair prejudice Rule 403 balancing test appropriately. Despite defendant’s arguments about the prejudicial nature of the evidence and the “verbs chosen” by his girlfriend when recounting his behavior toward her children, the court concluded that “the danger of unfair prejudice did not substantially outweigh the probative value of the evidence” under Rule 403. Id. at 8.