State v. Montanino, COA23-409, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jun. 4, 2024)

In this Durham County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder based on the felony-murder rule, arguing insufficient evidence of the underlying felony because the State did not admit evidence establishing the value of the victim’s car. The Court of Appeals agreed, reversing defendant’s conviction and remanding for the trial court to enter judgment on the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter. 

In July of 2018, police found the victim dead in her apartment; the police noted the apartment looked as if there had been a party, as it was in disarray. Defendant was known to have spent time drinking with the victim, and his fingerprints were found on beer cans in the apartment. Later that day, police found defendant in Chapel Hill near defendant’s car, and defendant asked “is she dead?” when he was arrested. Police found the victim’s driver’s license and debit card in defendant’s wallet and determined defendant sold the victim’s smartphone in Burlington. Defendant was subsequently convicted based on the felony-murder rule as the determination was that the victim died while defendant was stealing her car. 

The Court of Appeals first considered defendant’s argument that the jury instruction sheets were flawed as they did not have a selection for “not guilty.” The court noted defendant did not raise this objection during trial, and that the plain error standard applied. Because the jury selection sheet had a space for “no” for each charge, the court determined this did not represent plain error. The court noted this was not ideal, but when combined with the jury instructions from the trial court, the issue did not rise to the level of plain error. 

Moving to the felony murder argument, the court explained that “in order to prove felony larceny, the State had the burden of proving that the victim’s car was worth over $1,000.00.” Slip Op. at 8. Here, “the State did not offer any opinion evidence regarding the vehicle’s value, evidence of what the victim paid for the vehicle, or any other evidence which included a dollar amount from which the jury could make a value determination.” Id. at 10. Although the State referenced various pieces of evidence in the record that could have supported the value was over $1,000, the court noted this was insufficient. Under State v. Holland, 318 N.C. 602 (1986), providing information about the vehicle’s make and year, a picture of the vehicle, and evidence the vehicle was operational did not represent sufficient evidence for a jury to establish a monetary value, and the court noted that here, the State presented even less evidence than in Holland.

The court also provided an explanation of the basis for entering judgment or retrying defendant for lesser-included offenses, explaining “[a] retrial for second-degree murder and/or voluntary manslaughter is one of ‘continuing jeopardy,’ as the original indictment in this case embraced second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter as lesser-included offenses of first-degree premeditated murder and also embraced misdemeanor manslaughter as a lesser-included offense of first-degree felony murder.” Slip Op. at 14. 

Judge Stroud concurred as to the insufficiency of the evidence related to the car’s value, but dissented from the conclusions related to the jury selection sheet, and would have granted defendant a new trial.