State v. Colt, COA22-514, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jun. 20, 2023)

In this Wayne County case, defendant appealed his conviction for concealment of the death of a child who did not die of natural causes, arguing the State failed to satisfy the corpus delicti rule and error in permitting testimony that the child’s mother was convicted of second-degree murder. The Court of Appeals found no error and determined the corpus delicti rule was satisfied.  

In October of 2016, the mother and child in question moved into a house in Goldsboro with defendant and several other individuals. After the child disappeared, investigators interviewed defendant two times. In the second interview, defendant admitted overhearing the mother and another roommate discuss the child’s death and that they needed to dispose of the body. Defendant also described taking the mother and roommates to a house where they purchased methamphetamines, and events at the house that seemed to show the mother disposing of the body. Defendant told law enforcement “that he felt bad that he did not call for help, and one of his biggest mistakes was failing to tell people about [the child’s] death or report it to law enforcement.” Slip Op. at 7. At trial, text messages were admitted showing defendant and one of the roommates discussed covering up the child’s death. The prosecutor also asked a line of questions to one witness that revealed the mother was in prison for second-degree murder. Defendant moved for a mistrial several times and made a motion to dismiss, arguing insufficient evidence to satisfy the corpus delicti rule as the child’s body was never found, but the trial court denied the motions. 

Taking up defendant’s corpus delicti argument, the Court of Appeals first explained the rule’s requirement for corroborative evidence when an extrajudicial confession is the substantial evidence relied on to prove a crime. The court noted the N.C. Supreme Court adopted the “trustworthiness version” of the rule, meaning “the adequacy of corroborating proof is measured not by its tendency to establish the corpus delicti but by the extent to which it supports the trustworthiness of the admissions.” Slip Op. at 12-13, quoting State v. DeJesus, 265 N.C. App. 279 (2019). Having established the standard, the court looked to the substantial evidence supporting the trustworthiness of the confession and supporting each element of the crime charged, determining that the trial court properly denied the motion to dismiss. 

The court next considered defendant’s arguments that the testimony regarding the mother’s conviction for second-degree murder was (1) irrelevant under Rule of Evidence 401, (2) unfairly prejudicial under Rule of Evidence 403, and (3) constituted a violation of the Confrontation Clause of the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions. For (1), the court found relevancy “because it was relevant to whether [the child] was dead.” Id. at 21. Considering (2), the court found that since substantial evidence established the child died of unnatural causes, testimony regarding the mother’s conviction for murder was not unfairly prejudicial. Finally, for (3), the court noted that defendant’s argument that the mother’s guilty plea represented testimony was not directly addressed by North Carolina case law, but found an unpublished 4th Circuit per curiam opinion holding that a guilty plea was not testimonial evidence. The court also noted that no statement in the record seemed to alert the jury that the mother offered a guilty plea, and even if there was such a statement, it would represent harmless error based on the other evidence of the child’s death of unnatural causes. 

Chief Judge Stroud concurred in the result only by separate opinion, disagreeing with the analysis of admitting the testimony under Rules 401 and 403, but not considering the error prejudicial.