State v. Hogan, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022-NCCOA-4 (Jan. 4, 2022)

The defendant in this case was convicted of first-degree murder on four different theories, along with three counts each of armed robbery and kidnapping, and one count of conspiracy to commit armed robbery. The trial court sentenced the defendant for the murder and two robberies, and arrested judgment on the remaining convictions. Since the only issues raised on appeal concerned jury selection and a clerical error in one of the judgments, the appellate court declined to “recount the especially brutal and horrific factual background” leading to the defendant’s convictions. The facts are summarized in the parties’ briefs available here and here.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by refusing to excuse a prospective juror for cause after the juror indicated that she would not be able to apply the presumption of innocence. The defendant’s motion to excuse the juror for cause was denied at trial, so she was excused by the defense with a peremptory challenge. The motion was renewed later in the jury selection process after all the defendant’s peremptory challenges were exhausted, when the defendant was unable to excuse another juror he otherwise would have.

The appellate court reviewed the trial court’s ruling under an abuse of discretion standard, and found no error. Since this case had received extensive pretrial publicity, around 200 prospective jurors were called for jury selection. After excusing a number of jurors for hardships, the remaining 146 were divided into two panels for jury selection. Many of those potential jurors were subsequently excused for cause due to their exposure to pretrial publicity, inability to be fair and impartial, and concerns over the gruesome nature of the evidence. The juror at issue in this appeal had no prior knowledge of the facts, but during voir dire she stated that her father was retired from the Highway Patrol and acknowledged that she may have difficulty being fair to the defendant since she would be inclined to trust and give greater weight to testimony from a law enforcement witness. However, after further questioning by the attorneys and the trial judge, the prospective juror also stated that she was capable of setting her bias aside and “applying the presumption of innocence to defendant and the burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to the State.” Viewing the juror’s answers in their entirety under case precedent such as State v. Cummings, 361 N.C. 438 (2007), along with the fact that (unlike much of the venire) this juror also had no prior knowledge of the case, the appellate court concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the juror could follow the law as instructed, and did not err in declining to excuse her for cause.

The case was remanded to correct a clerical error on one of the judgments, which incorrectly listed the defendant’s active sentence as 77 to 100 months, instead of 73 to 100 months.

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