State v. Kowalski, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb. 18, 2020)

During cross-examination of the complaining witness in a case involving a charge of assault on a female, the defendant began a line of questions to which the State objected. The trial judge excused the jury and conducted a voir dire, during which the defendant’s counsel demonstrated the proposed cross- examination of the witness, including questions about her mental health and treatment. The trial judge ruled that those questions were not relevant and that to the extent they were relevant they were more prejudicial than probative. When cross-examination resumed in front of the jury, the defendant did not attempt to elicit testimony about the witness’s mental health. (1) The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that the defendant failed to preserve for appellate review the issue of the judge’s refusal to allow the testimony. The defendant was not required to elicit the testimony before the jury where, as here, the defendant elicited the testimony in voir dire and secured a ruling from the trial judge. The Court distinguished State v. Coffey, 326 N.C. 268 (1990), where the trial judge conducted a voir dire, ruled that most of the proposed testimony was inadmissible, but indicated that counsel could ask other questions, which the judge would rule on when the questions were asked. When the jurors returned, however, the defendant did not ask any questions, including questions not yet ruled on by the judge. (2) The Court recognized that North Carolina allows cross-examination of a key witness regarding the witness’s past mental problems or defects to challenge the witness’s credibility, citing State v. Williams, 330 N.C. 711 (1992). The Court found in this case that the excluded testimony concerned prior instances of the witness’s mental health and treatment and that one instance involved treatment the witness had sought for childhood trauma; however, the Court stated that the defendant did not ask or attempt to introduce evidence about a mental health diagnosis or mental state. The Court held that the defendant failed to show that the trial judge abused his discretion in finding that the excluded testimony was not relevant or to the extent it was relevant that it was more prejudicial than probative. (3) The defendant argued that the trial judge committed plain error by charging the jury that the alleged assault involved “grabbing, pushing, dragging, kicking, slapping, and/or punching” when the criminal summons alleged “striking her neck and ear.” The Court rejected the defendant’s variance argument because the defendant failed to object to the instruction at trial, did not request that the trial judge including the “striking” language from the summons, and contributed to the variance by proposing that the judge add the words slapping and punching to the instruction.