State v. Minyard, COA22-962, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jun. 20, 2023)

In this Burke County case, defendant appealed the partial denial of his motion for appropriate relief (MAR), arguing he was entitled to a new trial because the trial court did not conduct a sua sponte inquiry into his competency after he overdosed and fell into a stupor during jury deliberations. The Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court order on the MAR and denied a new trial.

Defendant first appealed his conviction in State v. Minyard, 231 N.C. App. 605, disc. rev. denied, 367 N.C. 495 (2014). Defendant was convicted in 2012 for five counts of indecent liberties with a minor and first-degree sexual offense, as well as habitual felon status. During the jury deliberations and outside the presence of the jury, defendant managed to consume fifteen Klonopin along with alcohol and suffered an overdose in the courtroom. Defendant was treated by emergency medical services and missed the remainder of deliberations as well as the verdict. Defendant was present for the habitual felon status and sentencing portions of his proceeding. After his conviction, defendant appealed and ultimately filed several MARs, none of which resulted in a new trial. 

Defendant’s MAR giving rise to the current case was filed in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Sides, 376 N.C. 449 (2020). Based upon the reasoning in that case, the superior court judge considering the MAR only found error with the trial court’s failure to conduct a competency hearing prior to the habitual felon and sentencing phases of the proceeding, not the initial trial. As a result, the MAR order vacated defendant’s habitual felon status and sentence, but denied the request for a new trial. The State did not cross-appeal the habitual felon and sentencing issues. 

Taking up the MAR order, the Court of Appeals waded into the caselaw surrounding a defendant’s competency and the right to be voluntarily absent from trial. The court examined the facts in Sides, where the defendant took sixty Xanax tablets on the third day of trial; a doctor subsequently recommended she be involuntarily committed, and a magistrate agreed. The Sides decision held “that while a defendant may voluntarily waive the constitutional right to be present at trial, the defendant may only waive the right when she is competent.” Slip Op. at 12. In Sides, the trial court skipped the important determination of the defendant’s competency before assuming that she voluntarily took an act to absent herself from trial, and should have conducted a competency hearing once it was presented with “substantial evidence” of the defendant’s incompetence. Id. at 12-13, quoting Sides. However, in State v. Flow, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 28, 2023), the Supreme Court drew a distinction between a defendant who jumped off a jailhouse balcony and the defendant in Sides. In Flow, the defendant’s capacity had not been called into question before his jump, and the evidence considered by the trial court did not indicate that the defendant was incompetent. As a result, the Flow trial court found, “implicitly at least,” that the defendant was competent when he acted voluntarily to waive his right to be present at trial, a decision the Supreme Court upheld. Slip Op. at 15, quoting Flow

Looking to the current case, the court concluded that “[n]o substantial evidence tended to alert the court or counsel nor cast doubt on Defendant’s competency prior to his voluntary actions,” and “[u]nlike in Sides, the trial court was not presented with any evidence of a history of Defendant’s mental illness.” Id. at 15-16. The court concluded that Sides was inapplicable and defendant’s request for a new trial was properly denied. The court then determined, without deciding whether an error occurred, that any violation was not a structural error, and was harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt. Affirming the MAR order, the court remanded for habitual felon proceedings and resentencing.