State v. Mason, 2022-NCCOA-684, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 18, 2022)

In this Rowan County case, defendant appeals her conviction for second-degree murder, challenging the exclusion of her expert’s testimony and the admission of lay opinion testimony from the State’s witness. The Court of Appeals found no prejudicial error.

In April of 2018, defendant was involved in a scuffle at a gaming arcade in Salisbury. Although who initiated the confrontation was unclear from the testimony and video, defendant and the eventual male victim engaged in a physical confrontation while waiting to cash out of the arcade. Two other women were also involved in the initial confrontation, and one woman was physically assaulted by the man involved. After fighting ensued, defendant was thrown against an ATM and knocked to the floor; meanwhile the male victim was on top of another woman engaged in a physical confrontation. Defendant drew her handgun and shot the victim twice, once in the back and once in the chest. At trial, defendant testified that she acted in self-defense and defense of others.

The Court of Appeals first considered the exclusion of testimony from defendant’s expert regarding the principles of self-defense and use of force under Rule 702(a) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence. The court explained that “Rule 702(a) has three main parts, and expert testimony must satisfy each to be admissible,” a role for the trial court to determine at its discretion. Slip Op. at 10, quoting State v. McGrady, 368 N.C. 880, 889 (2016). The court explained the testimony must (1) be from a qualified expert, (2) be relevant to the trial, and (3) reliable in the opinion of the trial court. In this matter, defendant’s expert was a former law enforcement officer but he was not an expert in concealed carry class training, and the trial court found that no specialized knowledge was required to determine the reasonableness of defendant’s actions. As a result, the court found that the expert “lacked sufficient ‘expertise to be in a better position than the trier of fact to have an opinion on the subject’ of the appropriate use of force by civilians.” Id. at 15.

Regarding the admission of lay opinion, the court explained that defendant was challenging the admission of a witness’s statement that no lives were in danger that April night in the arcade, which called into question her use of force. Assuming arguendo that the admission of this testimony was improper, the court held that defendant could not show prejudice, as several other witnesses testified (without objection) to their perception of the level of danger in the arcade, specifically that it was low and not likely to result in harm. Id. at 22. As a result, defendant could not show any prejudice from the testimony she found objectionable.