State v. Juarez, 369 N.C. 351 (Dec. 21, 2016)

Reversing the Court of Appeals in this first-degree felony murder case, the court held that the trial court did not commit reversible error by failing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offenses of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The underlying felony for first-degree felony murder was discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle in operation. The trial court denied the defendant’s request for instructions on second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The Court of Appeals held that it was error not to instruct on the lessers because the evidence was conflicting as to whether the defendant acted in self-defense. The court found this reasoning incorrect, noting that self-defense is not a defense to felony murder. Perfect self-defense may be a defense to the underlying felony, which would defeat the felony murder charge. Imperfect self-defense however is not available as a defense to the underlying felony use to support a felony murder charge because allowing such a defense when the defendant is in some manner at fault “would defeat the purpose of the felony murder rule.” In order to be entitled to instructions on the lesser included offenses, “the conflicting evidence must relate to whether defendant committed the crime charged, not whether defendant was legally justified in committing the crime.” Here, there is no conflict regarding whether the defendant committed the underlying felony. The defendant does not dispute that he committed this crime; rather he claims only that his conduct was justified because he was acting in self-defense.