State v. Lane, 370 N.C. 508 (Mar. 2, 2018)

In this capital case, the court held that the defendant failed to prove materiality in connection with his request for post-conviction DNA testing of hair samples. The hair samples were found in a trash bag in which the victim’s body had been placed. Before the trial court the defendant argued that the requested testing was material for two reasons. First, the evidence at trial showed two separate crimes, a rape and murder; acknowledging that DNA evidence implicated him in the rape, the defendant asserted that the hairs could relate to another perpetrator, and potentially the only perpetrator of the murder. Second, the defendant argued that the State’s closing argument relied in part on the forensic analysis of hairs recovered from the defendant’s residence that were found to be microscopically consistent with the victim’s hair; the defendant asserted that if those hairs were material to the State, the hairs found in the bag were material to the defense. The trial court denied the testing motion, finding that the defendant failed to establish materiality. The trial court considered, among other things, the evidence presented at trial and prior post-conviction DNA testing that was done on vaginal and rectal swabs from the victim’s body that ultimately implicated the defendant. The court began by adopting the following standard of review of the denial of the motion for post-conviction DNA testing: findings of fact are binding if supported by competent evidence and may not be disturbed absent an abuse of discretion; conclusions of law are reviewed de novo. The court further determined that the post-conviction DNA statute adopted the Brady materiality standard. It went on to conclude that taken together, the overwhelming evidence of guilt at trial, the dearth of trial evidence pointing to a second perpetrator, and “the inability of forensic testing to determine whether the hair samples at issue are relevant to establish a third party was involved”, created an “insurmountable hurdle” to the defendant’s materiality argument with respect to either the conviction or sentence. Finally, the court denied the defendant’s request that the court exercise its constitutional supervisory or inherent authority to order testing.