State v. Holmes, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 708 (Dec. 18, 2018)

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of first-degree murder. On appeal the defendant argued that the State failed to introduce sufficient evidence with respect to an unlawful killing and the defendant’s identity as the perpetrator.

            The defendant argued that the State failed to show that the victim died by virtue of a criminal act. The court disagreed. The victim was found dead in a bathtub, with a hairdryer. Although the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy was unable to determine a cause of death, he testified that he found red dots similar to bruising inside of the victim’s eyelids, causing him to believe that there was some type of pressure around her upper chest or neck and head area. He also found a large bruise on her right side that was less than 18 hours old, and an abrasion on her right thigh. A witness testified that the victim had no bruises the night before her death. Additionally, the pathologist found a hemorrhage on the inside of the victim’s scalp. The pathologist testified that her toxicology report was negative for alcohol and drugs and he ruled out drowning as a cause of death. He also found no evidence to support a finding that the victim died of electrocution. Taken in the light most favorable to the State, the evidence was sufficient to establish that the cause of death was a criminal act.

            The evidence was also sufficient to establish that the defendant was the perpetrator. The State presented substantial evidence of a tumultuous relationship between the defendant and the victim, colored by the defendant’s financial troubles, and that animosity existed between the two. The victim explicitly told a friend that she did not want to marry the defendant because of financial issues. The day before her death, the victim sent the defendant a text message, stating “You have until Tuesday at 8:00 as I’m leaving to go out of town Wednesday or Thursday. And my locks will be changed. So do my [sic] act stupid. Thanks.” She then sent an additional text stating, “I will also be [sic] send a request not to stop child support FYI.” The defendant’s financial difficulties, coupled with his tempestuous relationship with the victim and her threat to end the relationship and remove the defendant from her home are sufficient for a reasonable juror to conclude that the defendant had a motive to kill the victim. Additionally, the State presented evidence of opportunity. Specifically, evidence that the defendant was in the home between when the victim returned the night before and when her body was found the next day. Additionally, the evidence supported a conclusion that the victim was suffocated, and evidence connected the defendant to the method of killing. A white feather pillow was found behind a mattress in the room where the defendant stayed. Also in that room was an unopened pack of white socks. White feathers were found on the floor in the bedroom, in a trash bin outside the home, and in the bathroom where the victim’s body was found. A pair of wet white socks was found in the trashcan in the kitchen, with a feather on them. This evidence would allow a reasonable juror to conclude that the defendant had the means of suffocating the victim with the feather pillow found in his room and that he was connected to the means of the killing.