State v. Dalton, 369 N.C. 311 (Dec. 1, 2016)

Affirming the Court of Appeals in this murder case, the court held that the prosecutor’s closing argument exaggerating the defendant’s likelihood of being released from civil commitment upon a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity and constituted prejudicial error requiring a new trial. At trial the defendant asserted the insanity defense. At the charge conference, the prosecutor asked the trial court if he could comment on the civil commitment procedures that would apply if the defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity. The trial court agreed to permit the comment, but cautioned the prosecutor not to exaggerate the defendant’s chance of being released after 50 days. During closing arguments the prosecutor stated that it was “very possible that in 50 days, if she shows by a preponderance of the evidence that she is not a threat to anyone else or herself, she will be back home.” The defendant unsuccessfully objected to this comment and the prosecutor continued, arguing “She very well could be back home in less than two months.” The court began by rejecting the State’s argument that because the defendant failed to object to the prosecutor’s second statement, that statement should be reviewed under a stricter standard of review. The court concluded that the second statement was not separate and distinct from the first. Turning to the propriety of the prosecutor’s argument, it noted that if the jury finds a defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, the trial court must order the defendant civilly committed. Within 50 days of commitment, the trial court must provide the defendant with a hearing. If at that time the defendant shows by a preponderance of the evidence that she no longer has a mental illness or is dangerous to others the court will release the defendant. Clear, cogent and convincing evidence that an individual has committed homicide in the relevant past is prima facie evidence of dangerousness to others. Here, the evidence did not support the prosecutor’s assertion that if the defendant was found not guilty by reason of insanity it is “very possible” that she would be released in 50 days. Instead, it demonstrated that the defendant will suffer from mental illness and addiction “for the rest of her life” and that her “risk of recidivism would significantly increase if she were untreated and resumed her highly unstable lifestyle.” Additionally, the homicide for which she was convicted is prima facie evidence of dangerousness to others. Therefore the only reasonable inference from the evidence is that it is highly unlikely that the defendant would be able to demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence within 50 days that she no longer is dangerous to others.