State v. Metcalf, 280 N.C. App. 357, 2021-NCCOA-618 (Nov. 16, 2021)

The defendant lived in a trailer home with her boyfriend. In January 2015, the boyfriend’s three-year-old nephew came to stay with the couple for several days. The defendant would care for the child while the boyfriend and other nearby family members were at work. On a particular day, the defendant took four tablets of Xanax, in excess of the recommend three tablets a day. The boyfriend left for work, and the defendant checked on the child. The defendant turned on a space heater in the living room and went to the bathroom to smoke a cigarette. When she returned to the living room, she noticed that there were sparks coming from either the heater or the electric outlet and that the sparks were already causing the couch to smoke.

In a failed attempt to stop the burning, the defendant smothered the fire with a blanket. The defendant testified that she did not immediately get the child out of the trailer because she thought she could put out the fire. The mobile home did not have any running water, and the defendant tried unsuccessfully to use the fire extinguisher. After yelling for help, a neighbor arrived and escorted the defendant out of the trailer home. As the events progressed, the defendant was asked several times if there was anyone else inside the home, and each time, the defendant responded that there wasn’t.

When the fire department arrived, the defendant again answered that there was no one in the home, which a firefighter in turn relayed to dispatch. By the time a family member arrived and insisted that the child was still in the home, the firefighter informed him that there was no longer any way to safely enter the home. Once the crews gained access to the home, they found the deceased child on the bedroom floor.

During the initial trial proceedings, the trial judge inadvertently mentioned that the defense attorneys were from the public defender’s office. The court then denied a motion to strike the entire jury venire. The court also denied the defendant’s motions to dismiss the charges for insufficient evidence. The defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and orally provided notice of appeal.

(1) The defendant’s first argument on appeal was that the trial court erred in denying her motion to strike the jury venire, because it denied her right to a fair trial before an impartial jury. The Court of Appeals held that the single passing reference made under these facts did not warrant a new trial because the jury could not reasonably infer the trial court’s introduction of the parties to be an opinion on a factual issue in the case, the defendant’s guilt, nor the weight of the evidence or a witness’s credibility.

(2) The defendant next argued that her involuntary manslaughter conviction must be vacated because the State did not meet its burden of proving that the defendant’s criminally negligent actions proximately caused the child’s death. Noting (i) the defendant’s admission that she could have removed the child from the burning home when she exited, (ii) the defendant’s omissions to her neighbors and the firefighters regarding the child’s presence in the burning home, and (iii) the deceased child’s airway being coated with soot, the Court of Appeals held that there was substantial evidence in the record that the defendant’s culpably negligent acts and omissions proximately caused the child’s unintentional death and that the evidence was sufficient to send the case to the jury.

(3) The defendant’s final argument was that the short-form indictment charging her with involuntary manslaughter was fatally defective for lack of sufficient notice of involuntary manslaughter’s essential elements. In rejecting this assertion, the Court of Appeals noted that the constitutionality of the statutory short-form indictment at issue has previously been upheld by both the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court.