State v. Goins, ___ N.C. ___, 2021-NCSC-65 (Jun. 11, 2021)

The defendant was convicted of attempted first-degree murder for shooting a law enforcement officer who was attempting to serve a warrant for the defendant’s arrest for violating probation. During closing argument, the prosecutor stated:

[You m]ight ask why would [defendant] plead not guilty? I contend to you that the defendant is just continuing to do what he’s done all along, refuse to take responsibility for any of his actions. That’s what he does. He believes the rules do not apply to him.

. . .

[Defendant’s] not taking responsibility today. There’s nothing magical about a not guilty plea to attempted murder. He’s got to admit to all the other charges. You see them all on video. The only thing that’s not on video is what’s in his head. He also knows that those other charges carry less time. There’s the magic.

Slip op. at ¶ 8.

The defendant did not object to the State’s closing argument, and he was convicted of attempted murder and other charges. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court’s failure to intervene during the State’s improper argument was reversible error. The majority of the Court of Appeals panel agreed, holding that the prosecutor’s commentary on defendant’s decision to plead not guilty was so unfair it violated defendant’s due process rights and ordering a new trial. The dissenting judge would have required a showing of prejudice by defendant because he failed to object at trial. Based on the record, the dissenting judge would have held that the State’s closing argument was improper, but that defendant was not prejudiced by the error. The State appealed on the basis of the dissenting opinion, conceding that the argument was improper but arguing that it was not prejudicial.

On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals erred by failing to analyze prejudice. The high court undertook this review considering the entirety of the closing argument, the evidence, and the jury instructions. The Court noted that the prosecutor made the improper remarks in the context of explaining the intent required for attempted first-degree murder and after emphasizing the deliberate nature of the shooting. The Court characterized the improper argument as a “small portion” of the State’s closing argument and not the “primary” or “major focus.” Slip op. at ¶ 14. The Court noted that the State presented evidence that the defendant told his relatives that he would rather kill himself or be killed by law enforcement than go back to jail. Witnesses testified that the defendant’s gun was loaded with bullets designed to cause more serious injuries. After the officer identified himself, the defendant turned around and fired at the officer. The shootout between the defendant and the officer was captured on hotel surveillance video, which was played for the jury at trial. The Court reasoned that between the video and testimony from eyewitnesses who corroborated the State’s account of events, “‘virtually uncontested’” evidence of the defendant’s guilt was submitted to the jury. Slip op. at ¶ 15. In addition, the trial court instructed the jury that the defendant’s decision to plead not guilty could not be taken as evidence of his guilt, that the defendant was presumed innocent, and that the State was required to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Finally, the jury asked to re-watch the surveillance video of the shooting during its closing argument. The Court stated that this tended “to show that the jury based its decision on the evidence rather than on passion or prejudice resulting from the prosecutor’s improper argument.” Slip op. at ¶ 16. For these reasons, the Court concluded that the defendant was not prejudiced by the prosecutor’s “undeniably improper” closing argument. Slip. op. at ¶ 17. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for consideration of remaining issues.