State v. McKoy, 71A22, ___ N.C. ___ (Sept. 1, 2023)

In this Durham County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals majority decision upholding defendant’s voluntary manslaughter conviction. 

In December of 2016, defendant was driving out of his neighborhood when he was followed by the victim. Defendant was familiar with the victim and felt that the victim was violent and posed a threat to his safety. After the victim cut defendant off and blocked his way forward, defendant backed up, but found himself stuck in a ditch. As the victim approached his car, defendant pulled out a gun and fired at the victim. Defendant hit the victim in the back of the head as he ran from the gunfire, killing him. At trial, defendant argued he was acting in self-defense, despite the fact that no gun was found on the victim. Defense counsel attempted to question the victim’s father about the contents of the victim’s phone, including photos of the victim and friends holding guns. The trial court did not permit this questioning, despite defense counsel’s argument that the State had opened the door to examining this issue after testimony regarding the victim’s happy, friendly nature. On appeal, the Court of Appeals majority found that the trial court properly applied the Rule of Evidence 403 balancing test and excluded the evidence, and that even if this was error, it was not prejudicial. The dissent would have found that the line of questioning opened the door to allowing the phone evidence and that defendant was entitled to a new trial.

The Supreme Court explained the issue on appeal as “whether, if the door was opened, defendant had the right to ask [the victim’s father] specific questions about the cell phone’s contents in front of the jury.” Slip Op. at 11. The Court explained that the concept of opening the door predated the modern rules of evidence, and that frequently the concept was no longer needed due to the structure of the modern rules. Despite the State’s opening the door on “otherwise irrelevant or inadmissible evidence,” the trial court retained the power to act as gatekeeper under Rule 403. Id. at 14. This gatekeeping function is reviewed for abuse of discretion on appeal, a standard that is “a steep uphill climb” for an appealing party. Id. at 15. Here, the trial court struck a balance that the Supreme Court found not an abuse of discretion. 

The Court went beyond the abuse of discretion analysis to determine that, even if the trial court committed abuse of discretion, defendant was not prejudiced by the decision and was not entitled to a new trial. Explaining defendant’s conviction, the Court noted that the jury found defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, meaning that they found he was acting in self-defense but that he used excessive force when doing so. The Court explained that there was no reasonable way the evidence would have convinced the jury that defendant was acting appropriately, as defendant had never seen or heard about the contents of the victim’s phone prior to the shooting. Id. at 18. Likewise, the evidence would not have supported the jury finding that the victim had a gun or shot at defendant, and could not have rebutted the evidence showing the victim was fleeing from defendant when he was shot in the back. After making this determination, the Court concluded “[t]here is no reasonable possibility that a ruling in defendant’s favor [on the phone evidence] would have led to a different jury verdict.” Id. at 20.