State v. Dorman, 225 N.C. App. 599 (Feb. 19, 2013)

The trial court erred by dismissing murder charges pursuant to G.S. 15A-954(a)(4) (flagrant violation of constitutional rights causing irreparable prejudice). The court first held that the trial court erred by finding that destruction of the victim’s bones resulted in a flagrant violation of constitutional rights under Brady. An autopsy by the Medical Examiner’s Office identified the victim and found that cause of death was blunt head trauma consistent with a shotgun wound. After the autopsy was complete, that office released most of the victim’s remains to the family and they were cremated. A partial fragment of the victim’s skull was retained by the office. Even if there was bad faith on the State’s part, that alone cannot support a dismissal under G.S. 15A-954(a)(4); there also must be irreparable prejudice such that there is no remedy other than dismissal. In this respect, the court held that the trial court’s ruling was premature given that no trial had occurred. It explained:

The defense has yet to engage any expert, and has failed to attempt to conduct any tests, whether for DNA or to attempt to replicate the photographic identification of the decedent using the radiographs of her teeth. It may well be that upon the hiring of an expert and analyzing the partial skull remains which still are being held by the [Medical Examiner’s Office], Defendant’s expert may concur in the [autopsy results] that the jaw bone is indeed that of [the victim]. Until it can be established that the partial remains are untestable or that the identification of the deceased is somehow flawed or incapable of repetition, we fail to see how the defense has been irreparably prejudiced. 

The court also disagreed with the trial court’s conclusion that dismissal was the only appropriate remedy. Second, the court held that the trial court erred by determining that the State’s failure to disclose “the role its agents took in assisting, facilitating, and paying for the permanent destruction” of the remains and the failure of Medical Examiner’s Office staff to produce email records subject to subpoena supported dismissal. Because the defendant was provided with that information prior to trial, no Brady violation occurred. Third, trial court erred by concluding that three instances in which the State “fail[ed] to correct misrepresentations of material fact . . . flagrantly violated [the defendant’s] constitutional rights[.]” Although the trial court cited Napue v. Illinois, 360 U.S. 264 (1959), in support of its ruling, the court found that case inapplicable given that no trial had occurred and no conviction had been obtained in the case at hand. Fourth, with respect to the trial court’s conclusion that a flagrant violation of Eighth Amendment rights occurred, the court rejected this basis for dismissal, reasoning that it could not determine the precise factual or legal basis for the trial court’s ruling.