State v. Edwards, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb. 16, 2021)

The defendant was charged and convicted of first-degree felony murder for the attempted robbery and fatal shooting of a taxi cab driver whom the defendant had summoned to his apartment complex. When the taxi cab arrived, witnesses saw a man shoot the driver, drag the driver from his car, and then rummage through his pockets. The shooter then ran to a white four-door car, which then left the apartment complex. 

Officers found a sweatshirt on the rear floorboard of the taxi cab with a prepaid cell phone inside. The cell phone contained photos of the defendant, his State-issued identification card, and his electric bill. The cell phone also contained texts between the defendant and another man regarding the defendant’s obtaining a handgun and his need for money to pay his electric bill. 

Officers went to the defendant’s home a short time later. The defendant agreed to come to the station for questioning and went there in his girlfriend’s car – a white, four-door car like the one that left the crime scene.

At his trial on first degree murder charges, the defendant requested an instruction on flight that permitted the jury to infer lack of guilt from the defendant’s decision not to flee when investigators approached him at his home. The trial court declined to provide the instruction. The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree felony murder and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by rejecting his proposed jury instruction.

The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err in failing to give the instruction because the defendant’s request was not based on his conduct at the crime scene. Indeed, the evidence established that the shooter, who the State alleged was the defendant, fled the scene after shooting the victim. The Court explained that providing an instruction on lack of flight in these circumstances would inappropriately allow defendants “‘to make evidence for themselves by their subsequent acts.’” Slip op. at ¶ 17 (quoting State v. Burr, 341 N.C. 263, 297 (1995)). As a general rule, defendants are not allowed to use their failure to flee before arrest or to escape from jail as proof of innocence.

In addition, the Court held that even assuming that the trial court erred by refusing to give the instruction, the error was harmless in light of the State’s overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.

Judge Murphy concurred in part and concurred in the result only in part. He wrote separately to express his view that though the Court was bound by caselaw to reject the defendant’s argument, he agreed with the defendant that if courts were going to continue to instruct jurors that they could consider flight as evidence of guilt, jurors should be instructed in cases when the defendant did not flee that they could consider that as evidence of innocence.