State v. Corbett & Martens, 376 N.C. 799 (Mar. 12, 2021)

The defendant Molly Corbett was the daughter of the co-defendant, Thomas Marten. The two were charged with second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter following an altercation with Molly’s husband in Davidson County. The altercation occurred at the couple’s home while Molly’s mother and father were visiting overnight. The defendants were jointly tried, and both were convicted of second-degree murder. A divided Court of Appeals granted a new trial based on three evidentiary errors, as well as errors relating to the jury instructions (that decision is summarized here). Based on a partial dissent at the Court of Appeals, the State sought review at the North Carolina Supreme Court. A divided court affirmed.

(1) Following the incident, the children of the deceased husband (from an earlier marriage) made statements to a social worker at a child abuse advocacy and treatment center. They both indicated their father had been abusive towards Molly. One child provided an explanation for the presence of a brick paver (apparently used in the altercation) found in Molly’s room on the night of the incident. The other child explained that her father originally got angry that evening when she awakened her parents following a nightmare. The children were living out of the country at the time of trial and the defendants sought to admit the hearsay statements as statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment and under the residual exception (803(4) and 803(24), respectively). The trial court excluded the testimony.

Rule 803(4) objections are reviewed de novo, while Rule 803(24) objections are reviewed for abuse of discretion. The statements of the children to the social worker were made for purposes of treatment and were reasonably pertinent to their treatment, satisfying Rule 803(4). When determining whether a child had the requisite intent to make a statement for purposes of treatment, North Carolina courts look to the objective circumstances surrounding the statement, including:

(1) whether ‘some adult explained to the child the need for treatment and the importance of truthfulness’; (2) ‘with whom, and under what circumstances, the declarant was speaking’; and (3) ‘the surrounding circumstances, including the setting of the interview and the nature of the questioning’. Corbett Slip op. at 21 (citation omitted).

All of those factors “strongly supported” admission of the children’s statement on the facts of the case.

The statements were also admissible under the residual hearsay exception. The trial court excluded the statements as lacking trustworthiness. No evidence in the record supported this finding, and the evidence otherwise met the requirements for admission under the residual exception. The majority therefore agreed with the Court of Appeals that the children’s statements were improperly excluded and that the defendants’ self-defense claims were undermined as a result. This was prejudicial error requiring a new trial under both rules.

(2) At trial, the State presented expert testimony regarding blood splatter patterns on the defendants’ clothes. On voir dire, the witness acknowledged that the purported blood splatter at issue was not tested for the presence of blood. He further testified that failing to test the material for blood violated the procedures for blood splatter analysis laid out in his own treatise on the subject. The trial court allowed the testimony over objection. A majority of the Court of Appeals determined the evidence was inadmissible under Rule 702, as it was not based on sufficient data and therefore could not have been the product of reliable application of the method to the facts of the case. The dissenting judge at the Court of Appeals only challenged preservation of this claim and did not discuss the merits of the Rule 702 issue in her opinion. The State also did not seek discretionary review of the Rule 702 ruling on the merits. The Supreme Court therefore examined only the preservation argument.

The majority found that the defendants’ preserved the objection by immediately objecting when the evidence was presented (after having also objected during voir dire of the witness), and by renewing the objection the next day. Further, the court determined the issue was preserved by operation of the law. Under G.S. § 15A-1446(d)(10):

[N]otwithstanding a party’s failure to object to the admission of evidence at some point at trial, a party may challenge ‘[s]ubsequent admission of evidence involving a specified line of questioning when there has been an improperly overruled objection to the admission of evidence involving that line of questioning.’ Corbett Slip op. at 44-45 (citing the statute).

While some subsections of G.S. § 15A-1446 have been found to be unconstitutional, the court has never disavowed this one and found that it applied here. Because the Court of Appeals determined this evidence was improperly admitted and that finding was not at issue on appeal to the Supreme Court, the law of the case dictated that the evidence had been improperly admitted. Thus, the defendants’ objections at trial were improperly overruled and the issue was preserved as matter of law, in addition to the grounds relied upon by the Court of Appeals.

(3) Thomas Martens testified in his defense at trial that he heard his daughter yell, “don’t hurt my dad” during the altercation. The trial court sustained the objection as hearsay. The Supreme Court again agreed with the Court of Appeals that this was error. The statement was not hearsay, as it went the Thomas’s subjective belief of fear at the time and was not offered for the truth of the statement. It was alternatively admissible as an excited utterance under N.C. R. Evid. 803(2). In isolation, this error was not prejudicial because the defendant was otherwise given wide latitude to describe his state of mind at the time. It did however contribute to the cumulative prejudice:

[T]hese errors together imposed a significant constraint on defendants’ efforts to establish a crucial fact: namely, their state of mind at the time of the events in question based on all of the circumstances known to them. Corbett Slip op. at 53.

Because the majority agreed with the decision below regarding these evidentiary issues and their prejudicial impact, the court did not reach the other issues addressed by the Court of Appeals.

Justice Berger, joined by Justices Newby and Barringer, dissented. The dissenting justices believed that the majority improperly re-weighed the evidence on appeal and would have found that Rule 803(4) issues were subject to abuse of discretion review, rather than the de novo review applied by the majority. They also faulted the majority for raising G.S. 15A-1446 when no party argued the applicability of that statute.