State v. Council, 232 N.C. App. 68 (Jan. 21, 2014)

In a felony assault and robbery case, no plain error occurred when the trial court ruled that the defendant could not question the victim about an unrelated first-degree murder charge pending against him in another county at the time of trial. Normally it is error for a trial court to bar a defendant from cross-examining a State’s witness regarding pending criminal charges, even if those charges are unrelated to those at issue. In such a situation, cross-examination can impeach the witness by showing a possible source of bias in his or her testimony, to wit, that the State may have some undue power over the witness by virtue of its ability to control future decisions related to the pending charges. However, in this case the plain error standard applied. Given that the victim’s “credibility was impeached on several fronts at trial” the court found that no plain error occurred. Moreover the court noted, the victim’s most important evidence—his identification of the defendant as the perpetrator—occurred before the murder allegedly committed by the victim took place. As such, the court reasoned, his identification could not have been influenced by the pending charge. For similar reasons the court rejected the defendant’s claim that counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to the State’s motion in limine to bar cross-examination of the victim about the charge.