State v. May, 368 N.C. 112 (Jun. 11, 2015)

The court reversed State v. May, 230 N.C. App. 366 (2013), which had held that the trial court committed reversible error when charging a deadlocked jury. The court of appeals held that the trial court erred when it instructed the deadlocked jury to resume deliberations for an additional thirty minutes, stating: “I’m going to ask you, since the people have so much invested in this, and we don’t want to have to redo it again, but anyway, if we have to we will.” The court of appeals concluded that instructing a deadlocked jury regarding the time and expense associated with the trial and a possible retrial resulted in coercion of a deadlocked jury in violation of the N.C. Constitution. The court of appeals went on to hold that the State had failed to show that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The State petitioned for discretionary review on whether the court of appeals had erred in holding that the State had the burden of proving that the purported error in the trial court’s instructions was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The supreme court reversed, distinguishing State v. Wilson, 363 N.C. 478, 484 (2009) (claim that instructions given to less than the full jury violated the constitution was preserved as a matter of law), and concluding that because the defendant failed to raise the constitutional coercive verdict issue below, it was waived on appeal. Nevertheless, the supreme court continued, because the alleged constitutional error occurred during the trial court’s instructions to the jury, it could review for plain error. The court also concluded that because the defendant failed to assert at trial his argument that the instructions violated G.S. 15A-1235 and because the relevant provisions in G.S. 15A-1235 were permissive and not mandatory, plain error review applied to that claim as well. Turning to the substance of the claims, the court concluded that the trial court’s instructions substantially complied with G.S. 15A-1235. It further held that “Assuming without deciding that the court’s instruction to continue deliberations for thirty minutes and the court’s isolated mention of a retrial were erroneous, these errors do not rise to the level of being so fundamentally erroneous as to constitute plain error.”