State v. Hicks, 136PA22, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023)

In this Randolph County case, the Supreme Court majority reversed the Court of Appeals decision overturning defendant’s conviction for second-degree murder, finding no error by the trial court.

In June of 2017, after a tumultuous affair involving the use of methamphetamine, defendant shot the victim while he was in her home. Defendant called 911 to report her shooting of the victim, who was in her bedroom at the time he was killed. An investigation found that the victim was shot in the back and evidence suggested that the shots were fired from more than six inches away. Defendant was indicted for second-degree murder; during trial the court instructed the jury on the aggressor doctrine over defendant’s objection. After defendant was convicted, she appealed, arguing the trial court erred by providing instruction on the aggressor doctrine. The Court of Appeals agreed, ordering a new trial. 

The Supreme Court noted that the appropriate inquiry was whether evidence in the record, when interpreted in the light most favorable to the State, supported the conclusion that defendant was the aggressor, and determined that the Court of Appeals failed to properly apply the standard in the current case. The self-defense “castle doctrine” provisions of G.S. §§ 14-51.2 and 14-51.3 allow a person to use deadly force to defend themselves in their home; the “aggressor doctrine” in G.S. 14-51.4 removes this defense if the jury finds that the defendant initially provoked the confrontation and no exceptions apply. When determining whether an instruction on the aggressor doctrine is appropriate, “a trial court must consider whether a jury could reasonably infer from the evidence that the defendant acted as an aggressor.” Slip Op. at 15. When making this determination, “the court must view the record in the light most favorable to the State, drawing all reasonable inferences in its favor.” Id. Here, defendant’s testimony at trial contradicted her previous statements, and contained new details not previously disclosed. The Supreme Court pointed out that physical evidence also seemed to contradict defendant’s version of events. Because “there was significant evidence from which a jury reasonably could conclude that [defendant] was the aggressor,” the trial court provided the proper instruction on the aggressor doctrine, and the Court of Appeals incorrectly ordered a new trial. Id. at 21. 

Justice Dietz, joined by Justice Berger, concurred by separate opinion to draw a distinction between common law aggressor doctrine and G.S. 14-51.4. Id. at 22. 

Justice Morgan, joined by Justice Barringer, dissented by separate opinion, and would have found that the aggressor doctrine instruction was inappropriate in this case. Id. at 25. 

Justice Barringer, joined by Justice Morgan, dissented by separate opinion, and would have held that the speculative evidence in the current case was insufficient to support the conclusion that defendant was the aggressor. Id. at 28.