State v. Hartley, 212 N.C. App. 1 (May. 17, 2011)

(1) In a triple murder case, no confrontation clause violation occurred when the State’s expert medical examiner was allowed to testify in place of the pathologist who performed the autopsies. The medical examiner provided her own expert opinion and did not simply regurgitate the non-testifying examiner’s reports. The testifying expert made minimal references to the autopsy reports, which were never introduced into evidence, and her testimony primarily consisted of describing the victims’ injuries as depicted in 28 autopsy photographs. She described the type of wounds, the pain they would have inflicted, whether they would have been fatal, and testified to each victim’s cause of death. With regard to one victim who had been sexually assaulted, the expert explained, through use of photographs, that the victim had been asphyxiated, how long it would have taken for her to lose consciousness, and that the blood seen in her vagina could have been menstrual blood or the result of attempted penetration. The expert’s testimony as to the impact of the various trauma suffered by the victims was based primarily on her inspection of the photographs that were admitted into evidence and her independent experience as a pathologist. Although the expert referred to the non-testifying pathologist’s reports, she did not recite findings from them. To the extent that she did, no prejudice resulted given her extensive testimony based strictly on her own personal knowledge as a pathologist, including the effect of the victims’ various injuries and their cause of death. Finally, the court concluded, even if any error occurred, it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. (2) The court noted in a footnote that the autopsy photographs were properly admitted as the basis of the testifying expert’s opinion and therefore admission of them did not violate the defendant’s confrontation rights.