State v. McNeill, 371 N.C. 198 (Jun. 8, 2018)

In this capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion by denying his requests for a mistrial because of two statements made by the State during closing arguments at the guilt phase of the trial. During the investigation of the case, the defendant authorized defense counsel to reveal the location of the victim’s body, in hopes of receiving a plea offer or perhaps the possibility of arguing for mitigating circumstances at a possible later capital trial. The defendant and the lawyers agreed that the information would be conveyed to the police but that its source would not be disclosed. The lawyers carried out this agreement in making their disclosure to law enforcement. During closing argument at trial, the prosecutor noted in part that the victim’s body was found “where the defendant’s lawyer said he put the body.” Later, the prosecutor asserted, “And his defense attorney telling law enforcement where to look for the body puts him there.” The court found that the second statement was not improper. Evidence that the information of the victim’s location was conveyed to law enforcement by defense counsel was properly admitted by the trial court and this evidence permitted reasonable inferences to be drawn that were incriminating to the defendant, specifically that the defendant was the source of the information and had been to the location. The prosecutor’s first statement however was improper. This statement was couched as an assertion of fact which was not an accurate reflection of the evidence. However, the statement did not require a mistrial. The court stated: “this sole misstatement of that evidence did not run far afield of what was permissible.”