State v. King, 2022-NCCOA-59, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Feb. 1, 2022)

In this Burke County case, the defendant appealed after he was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder. The case arose out of an altercation between the defendant and his apartment neighbor, Hubert Hunter, Jr. After Hunter was found dead in his own apartment, a maintenance worker found a plastic bag containing bloodstained clothing and a kitchen knife in a dumpster behind the apartment building. DNA on the knife matched the victim and DNA on the clothing matched the defendant. A medical examination of the victim showed that he had three stabbing and slashing wounds to his neck, one of which was deep enough to fracture his spine, as well as hemorrhaging of blood vessels indicating that the ultimate cause of death was strangulation. Law enforcement interviewed the defendant multiple times. He first denied fighting with Hunter, but later said that he had gone to Hunter’s apartment to collect $3 Hunter owed him, which led to a fight in which the victim “pulled a knife.” The defendant admitted to choking the victim as they wrestled in an attempt to make him pass out and stop fighting, but said that he was struggling in self-defense after the victim grabbed the knife and that any stabbing was incidental. The defendant also claimed that he himself passed out during the struggle. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and appealed. 

(1) The defendant first argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss based on insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in dismissing the motion. The evidence showed the defendant threatened the victim, beat him severely, did not seek medical assistance after the fight, and attempted to cover up the killing by disposing of his bloodied clothes and the knife. The Court rejected the defendant’s contention that his own black out undermined the State’s theory of premeditation and deliberation and instead showed he acted in a state of passion; other evidence sufficed to submit the issue to the jury, and it was for them to weigh the evidence presented.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court committed plain error by failing to instruct the jury on the defense of automatism in light of the defendant’s statement that he blacked out during the altercation with the victim. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the only evidence of the defendant blacking out came from his own self-serving statements, which, moreover, were contradicted by his other statements and general ability to recall the details of the fight. Because the defendant’s statements about blacking out were insufficient to satisfy a reasonable jury that he lacked consciousness, the trial court did not plainly err by failing to give the instruction.

(3) Next, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s questioning of prospective jurors. The State’s questions included hypothetical questions like “If you were in fear for your life and had a weapon, would you defend yourself or would you run away?” The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to intervene because the State’s questions did not stake jurors out by asking them to consider specific circumstances and forecast their ultimate verdict.

(4) Finally, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by not intervening ex mero motu during closing arguments when the State claimed that the defendant, not the victim, handled the knife, thereby misleading the jury on the central issue of self-defense. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that trial court did not err when the State’s arguments drew reasonable inferences from the evidence and did not rely on evidence outside the trial record.

Having rejected each of the defendant’s arguments, the Court concluded that the defendant’s trial was free from error.