State v. Coley, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Aug. 14, 2020)

The defendant was indicted for attempted first-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, and possession of a firearm by a felon. On June 7, 2016, the defendant was sitting outside of a neighbor’s house with a group of friends when the defendant’s house guest, Garris, approached defendant and punched him. The defendant got up and began walking home, followed by Garris. When the defendant arrived at his residence, he was thrown against the door and hurled over two chairs by Garris. Garris left the residence and returned with a friend, at which time he continued to strike the defendant. Garris left the home a second time and returned shortly thereafter. At that time, the defendant retrieved a gun and shot Garris, injuring him.

At trial, the defendant gave notice of his intent to rely on self-defense. The trial court denied the defendant’s requested instruction to the jury on self-defense and the defense of habitation. The jury found the defendant guilty of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury and possession of a firearm by a felon. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by (1) denying his request to instruct the jury on self-defense, (2) failing to instruct the jury on the “stand-your-ground” provision, and (3) denying his request to instruct the jury on the defense of habitation. The Court of Appeals agreed, concluding that there was a reasonable possibility that the jury would have reached a different result if the defendant’s requested jury instruction had been given to the jury.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Court of Appeals, concluding that, viewing the evidence at trial in the light most favorable to the defendant, the defendant was entitled to both instructions. The Court recognized that “the right to use deadly force to defend oneself is provided both by statute and case law.” The defendant relied on both the self-defense statute, G.S. 14-51.3, and the defense of habitation statute, G.S. 14-51.2. The Court reviewed both, as well as the right not to retreat when defending against an aggressor. The Court determined that the defendant in the instant case presented competent and sufficient evidence to warrant the self-defense instruction.

The dissenting Court of Appeals judge focused primarily on the defendant’s testimony at trial about the firing of a warning shot, concluding that the warning shot rebutted the statutory presumption of “reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm” and thereby precluding a jury instruction on self-defense and defense of habitation. The Court noted that the dissenting Court of Appeals judge’s perspective ignored the principle that although there may be contradictory evidence from the State or discrepancies in the defendant’s evidence, the trial court must nonetheless charge the jury on self-defense where there is evidence that the defendant acted in self-defense.