State v. McLymore, 380 N.C. 185, 2022-NCSC-12 (Feb. 11, 2022)

Under G.S. 14-51.4, a person may not claim self-defense if the person was attempting a felony, committing a felony, or escaping from the commission of a felony at the time of the use of force. The defendant was charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery, and fleeing to elude in Cumberland County. He claimed self-defense and testified on his behalf. Evidence showed that the defendant had multiple prior felony convictions and that he possessed a weapon at the time of the murder. The trial court gave a general instruction on statutory self-defense and instructed the jury that the defendant could not claim self-defense if he was committing the felony of possession of firearm by a felon at the time of his use of force. The jury convicted on all counts and the defendant was sentenced to life without parole. On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed, finding that the defendant was disqualified from claiming statutory self-defense under State v. Crump, 259 N.C. App. 144 (2018) (strictly interpreting the felony disqualification) and determining that G.S. 14-51.4 supplanted the common law right in the situations covered by the statute. On discretionary review, the Supreme Court modified and affirmed.

(1)  The trial court and Court of Appeals correctly rejected the defendant’s argument that the statutory self-defense disqualification did not apply because the defendant was claiming common law, rather than statutory, self-defense. The Court agreed with the lower courts that G.S. 14-51.3 and 14-51.4 were intended to abolish the common law right to perfect self-defense in the circumstances identified by the statute, noting that the language of G.S. 14-51.3 closely followed the common law definition of self-defense and that the legislature had failed to express an intent to retain the common law (unlike other parts of the statutory self-defense laws, where such an intention was expressly stated). In the words of the Court:

[A]fter the General Assembly’s enactment of G.S. 14-51.3, there is only one way a criminal defendant can claim perfect self-defense: by invoking the statutory right to perfect self-defense. Section 14-51.3 supplants the common law on all aspects of the law of self-defense addressed by its provisions. Section 14-51.4 applies to the justification described in G.S. 14-51.3. Therefore, when a defendant in a criminal case claims perfect self-defense, the applicable provisions of G.S. 14-51.3—and, by extension, the disqualifications provided under G.S. 14-51.4—govern. McLymore Slip op. at 8-9 (cleaned up).

The trial court therefore did not err by instructing the jury on statutory self-defense, including on the felony disqualifier.

(2) The defendant’s objections to the jury instructions were sufficient to preserve his arguments relating to a “causal nexus” requirement for the felony disqualification provisions of G.S. 14-51.4, and his arguments were also apparent from the record. Among other reasons, the State argued, and the trial court relied on, the Crump decision (finding no causal nexus requirement for the felony disqualifier) in rejecting the defendant’s proposed jury instruction.

(3) The Court agreed that G.S.14-51.4 must be read to require a nexus between the defendant’s use of force and felony conduct used to disqualify the defendant from use of defensive force. A strict interpretation of this statute would lead to absurd and unjust results and would also contract the common law right to self-defense. “[A]bsent a causal nexus requirement, each individual [committing a felony not related to the need for defensive force] would be required to choose between submitting to an attacker and submitting to a subsequent criminal conviction.” McLymore Slip op. at 18. The Court also noted that a broad interpretation of the felony disqualifier may violate the North Carolina Constitution’s protections for life and liberty. N.C. Const. art. I, sec. 1. The Court therefore held that the State has the burden to demonstrate a connection between the disqualifying felony conduct and the need for the use of force, and the jury must be instructed on that requirement. Crump and other decisions to the contrary were expressly overruled. In the Court’s words:

[W]e hold that in order to disqualify a defendant from justifying the use of force as self-defense pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 14-51.4(1), the State must prove the existence of an immediate causal nexus between the defendant’s disqualifying conduct and the confrontation during which the defendant used force. The State must introduce evidence that ‘but for the defendant’ attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of a felony, ‘the confrontation resulting in injury to the victim would not have occurred.’ McLymore Slip op. at 20.

(4) Though the trial court’s instructions on the felony disqualification were erroneous, this error did not prejudice the defendant under the facts of the case. The jury convicted the defendant of armed robbery based on his theft of the victim’s car immediately after the murder. This necessarily showed that the jury found the defendant was committing or escaping from the commission of a felony related to his need to use force. According to the court:

Based upon the outcome of McLymore’s trial, it is indisputable that there existed an immediate causal nexus between his felonious conduct and the confrontation during which he used assertedly defensive force, and the felony disqualifier applies to bar his claim of self-defense. Id. at 23.

However, the Court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant would be categorically barred from self-defense with a firearm due to this status as a convicted felon. The defendant was not charged with possession of firearm by felon in the case and had no opportunity to defend against that charge. Additionally, the jury was not instructed on a causal connection between the defendant’s mere possession of the firearm and his need for use of force. According to the Court:

To accept the State’s argument on this ground would be to effectively hold that all individuals with a prior felony conviction are forever barred from using a firearm in self-defense under any circumstances. This would be absurd. Id. at 22.

The Court of Appeals was therefore modified and affirmed. Chief Justice Newby wrote separately to concur in result only, joined by Justice Barringer. They would have found that the causal nexus argument was not preserved and should have not been considered. Alternatively, they would have ruled that the felony disqualification does not require a causal nexus.