State v. Hicks, 283 N.C. App. 74 (Apr. 19, 2022)

rev’d per curiam, 136PA22, ___ N.C. ___ (Sep. 1, 2023)

In this Randolph County case, the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder for an incident in which she killed Caleb Adams, a romantic partner. On the day of the incident, Caleb stormed into her residence while under the influence of methamphetamine and began pushing, punching, kicking, and shoving her before the defendant shot him twice in the back. At trial, the judge instructed the jury on the aggressor doctrine over the defendant’s objection. The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on the aggressor doctrine because the evidence presented did not support any inference that she was the aggressor within the meaning of G.S. 14-51.4(2) (stating that self-defense under 14-51.2 and -51.3 is not available to a person who initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself unless an exception applies). Applying the relevant factors (the circumstances that precipitated the altercation, the presence or use of weapons, the degree and proportionality of the parties’ use of defensive force, the nature and severity of the parties’ injuries, and whether there is evidence that one party attempted to abandon the fight), the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred in instructing the jury on the aggressor doctrine. The victim burst into the defendant’s residence even though the defendant told him not to come, he yelled at her and told her he was going to kill her, and he initiated a physical confrontation. Though the victim entered the home unarmed, he briefly took possession of the victim’s firearm before relinquishing it to her; she armed herself with it only after the victim continued to scream at her, and used it only after he physically assaulted her. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant’s threat to send sexually explicit photographs to his wife on the night before the shooting made her the aggressor. The threat happened seven hours before the shooting, and therefore was not made at the time the self-defense occurred. Additionally, the Court declined to hold that a threat to expose one’s extramarital affair is conduct demonstrating an aggressive willfulness to engage in a physical altercation. The Court also rejected the State’s argument that the act of shooting the victim in the back necessarily made the defendant the aggressor. The Court distinguished State v. Cannon, 341 N.C. 79 (1995), in which the aggressor doctrine properly applied when the victim was actively retreating from the affray. In the absence of evidence that the defendant was the aggressor, the trial court erred in giving the aggressor instruction. The Court therefore ordered a new trial.

Having ordered a new trial, the Court did not reach the defendant’s argument that the trial court admitted certain evidence in error.

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