State v. Flow, 202PA21, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 28, 2023)

In this Gaston County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision finding no error when the trial court declined to conduct further inquiry into defendant’s capacity after determining that he voluntarily absented himself by jumping from a balcony on the sixth day of trial. 

In May of 2018, defendant forced his way into the home of his ex-girlfriend and held her at gunpoint for several hours, raping her twice. Police eventually forced their way into the home and successfully rescued the ex-girlfriend from defendant. Defendant came for trial on charges of rape, burglary, kidnapping, sexual offense, possession of a firearm by a felon, and violation of a protective order beginning on December 9, 2019. After defendant decided not to testify or present evidence on his own behalf, the trial court conducted two colloquies with defendant to determine if he was making the choices freely and intelligently. The court conducted these colloquies on Friday, December 13, and again on Monday, December 16, 2019. After the second colloquy, the jury was brought back and heard closing arguments from both sides, and trial proceedings concluded for the day. On the morning of December 17, 2019, defendant leaped off a mezzanine in the jail, breaking his leg and ribs. Defense counsel then moved under G.S. 15A-1002 to challenge defendant’s competency. After hearing from defense counsel and the state, the trial court determined that defendant voluntarily absented himself from the trial, and the trial moved forward, ultimately resulting in defendant’s convictions. A unanimous panel at the Court of Appeals found no error by the trial court, distinguishing the circumstances from State v. Sides, 376 N.C. 449 (2020). 

On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to conduct an inquiry into his capacity to proceed, basing his arguments on G.S. §§ 15A-1001 & -1002, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court reviewed these interrelated arguments de novo, first looking at the statutory claim. Here, defense counsel’s initial motion was sufficient to trigger G.S. 15A-1002’s hearing procedures, but the court explained the section only provides “sparse guidance regarding the procedural and substantive requirements of the competency hearing.” Slip Op. at 29. The court concluded that the inquiry here, where the trial court heard from both parties and accepted testimony on the events, was “statutorily sufficient because defendant was provided an opportunity to present any and all evidence relating to his competency that he was prepared to present.” Id. at 30. Even though the trial court did not consider whether defendant had attempted suicide by his jump, this did not show a failure to consider defendant’s capacity, as “[s]uicidality does not automatically render one incompetent,” and defendant could be suicidal without being incompetent, or vice versa. Id. at 31. 

The court next moved to the Due Process Clause argument, explaining that the requirements for a constitutional competency hearing are more involved, but are only triggered when the trial court is presented with substantive evidence of defendant’s incompetence. Here, “the determinative issue [was] whether the trial court in the instant case had substantial evidence that defendant may have lacked capacity at the time of his apparent suicide attempt.” Id. at 36. The court first noted that, as explained in the statutory inquiry, defendant’s suicide attempt on its own did not represent substantial evidence of incompetence. Defendant pointed to three categories of evidence showing incompetence: (1) his actions before the arrest, including erratic behavior, the use of a racial slur, and the nature of his crimes, (2) his suicide attempt, and (3) testimony that defendant was heavily medicated and had trouble communicating in the hospital after his attempt at suicide. The court rejected number (3) immediately as it related to after the attempt, and again noted that number (2) by itself did not support incompetence. That left the evidence of number (1), which the court found was inadequate to show substantial evidence of incompetence. Additionally, the trial court was able to observe and interact with defendant over the course of the trial, and received evidence provided by defense counsel at the hearing, none of which indicated a history of mental illness or inability to participate or understand the legal proceedings prior to his suicide attempt. The court concluded that no substantial evidence existed to justify further inquiry. 

Justice Earls dissented, and would have held that the trial court held an insufficient hearing under G.S. 15A-1002 and had sufficient evidence to require a competency hearing under the Due Process Clause. Id. at 45.