State v. Clonts, ___ N.C. App. ____, 802 S.E.2d 531 (Jun. 20, 2017)

aff’d per curiam, ___ N.C. ___, 813 S.E.2d 796 (Jun. 8, 2018)

In a case in which there was a dissenting opinion, the court held that the trial court erred by admitting a non-testifying witness’s pretrial deposition testimony. (1) The trial court’s finding were insufficient to establish that the witness was unavailable for purposes of the Rule 804(b)(1) hearsay exception and the Confrontation Clause. The entirety of the trial court’s findings on this issue were: “The [trial court] finds [the witness] is in the military and is stationed outside of the State of North Carolina currently. May be in Australia or whereabouts may be unknown as far as where she’s stationed.” The trial court made no findings that would support more than mere inference that the State was unable to procure her attendance; made no findings concerning the State’s efforts to procure the witness’s presence at trial; and made no findings demonstrating the necessity of proceeding to trial without the witness’s live testimony. The trial court did not address the option of continuing trial until the witness returned from deployment. It did not make any finding that the State made a good-faith effort to obtain her presence at trial, much less any findings demonstrating what actions taken by the State could constitute good-faith efforts. It thus was error for the trial court to grant the State’s motion to admit the witness’ deposition testimony in lieu of her live testimony at trial. (2) The court went on to find that even if the trial court’s findings of fact and conclusions had been sufficient to support its ruling, the evidence presented to the trial court was insufficient to support an ultimate finding of “unavailability” for purposes of Rule 804. It noted in part that the State’s efforts to “effectuate [the witness’s] appearance” were not “reasonable or made in good faith.” (3) A witness’s pretrial deposition testimony, taken in preparation of the criminal case, was clearly testimonial for purposes of the Confrontation Clause. (4) The court found that the facts of the case did not support a finding that the witness was unavailable under the Confrontation Clause. In this respect, the court noted that no compelling interest justified denying the defendant’s request to continue the trial to allow for the witness’s live testimony. It added: “The mere convenience of the State offers no such compelling interest.” It continued: “We hold that . . . in order for the State to show that a witness is unavailable for trial due to deployment, the deployment must, at a minimum, be in probability long enough so that, with proper regard to the importance of the testimony, the trial cannot be postponed.” (quotation omitted).