State v. Lewis, 365 N.C. 488 (Apr. 13, 2012)

The court of appeals properly found that the trial court abused its discretion by excluding, at a retrial, evidence of remarks that the lead investigator, Detective Roberts, made to a juror at the defendant’s first trial. After the defendant’s conviction, he filed a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) alleging that his trial had been tainted because of improper communication between Roberts and a juror, Deputy Hughes. At a hearing on the MAR, the defendant presented evidence that when his case was called for trial Hughes was in the pool of prospective jurors. While in custody awaiting trial, Hughes had twice transported the defendant to Central Prison in Raleigh. On one of those trips, the defendant told Hughes that he had failed a polygraph examination. Also, Hughes had assisted Roberts in preparing a photographic lineup for the investigation. While undergoing voir dire, Hughes acknowledged that he knew the defendant and had discussed the case with him. While he had misgivings about being a juror, Hughes said that he believed he could be impartial. Because the defendant insisted that Hughes remain on the jury, his lawyer did not exercise a peremptory challenge to remove Hughes from the panel. The evidence at the MAR hearing further showed that during a break in the trial proceedings, Roberts made the following statement to Hughes: “if we have . . . a deputy sheriff for a juror, he would do the right thing. You know he flunked a polygraph test, right?” Hughes did not report this communication to the trial court. Although the trial court denied the MAR, the court of appeals reversed, ordering a new trial. Prior to the retrial, the State filed a motion in limine seeking to suppress all evidence raised in the MAR hearing. Defense counsel opposed the motion, arguing that Roberts’ earlier misconduct was directly relevant to his credibility. The trial court allowed the State’s motion. The defendant was again convicted and appealed. The court of appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by granting the State’s motion. The supreme court affirmed, holding that the trial court should have allowed defense counsel to cross-examine Roberts regarding his statements to Hughes to show Roberts’ bias against the defendant and pursuant to Rule 608(b) to probe Roberts’ character for untruthfulness. The court went on to reject the State’s argument that the evidence was properly excluded under Rule 403, noting that defense counsel understood that the line of questioning would inform the jurors that the defendant had been convicted in a prior trial but believed the risk was worth taking. Finally, the court held that the trial court’s error prejudiced the defense given Roberts’ significant role in the case.