State v. Mylett, 374 N.C. 376 (May. 1, 2020)

The defendant was the twin brother of another criminal defendant and was attending his brother’s trial for assault on a government official in Watauga County (itself the subject of a published opinion, here). Following the guilty verdict in his brother’s case, the defendant made comments to several jurors as they exited the courthouse. These included statements that the jurors “got it wrong,” that his brother was innocent, that the jurors had “ruined his [brother’s] life,” that he “hoped they slept well,” and similar remarks. Before those comments, the defendant’s brother’s girlfriend exited the courtroom visibly upset, and courthouse video footage showed the defendant briefly comforting her before approaching the jurors. The defendant was charged with six counts of intimating jurors and conspiracy to intimidate jurors with his brother and his brother’s girlfriend under G.S. 14-225.2(a)(2). That subsection provides that a defendant is guilty of juror harassment when he “threatens . . . or intimidates [a] former juror or spouse [of a juror] . . . as a result of the prior official action of [the] juror in a grand jury proceeding or trial.”  

The trial court denied pretrial motions challenging the jury intimidation statute as unconstitutional under the First Amendment, denied the motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence, and declined to instruct the jury on the definition of “intimidate.” The defendant was convicted of conspiracy to intimidate jurors at trial and acquitted on the other counts. A majority of the Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s First Amendment arguments, finding the statute constitutional. The majority also found that the conviction was supported by sufficient evidence, and that the trial court did not err in failing to give the requested jury instructions (here). Chief Judge McGee dissented on each point. The Supreme Court agreed that the evidence was insufficient to support a conspiracy and reversed.

A criminal conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime with intent to carry out the agreement. While such agreement may be proven by circumstantial evidence, the evidence must show either an express agreement between the conspirators, or facts warranting an inference of the agreement. On the other hand, “[c]onspiracies cannot be established by mere suspicion, nor [by] evidence of mere relationship between the parties . . .” Slip op. at 8. The State’s evidence here raised no more than a conjecture of guilt, and the motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence should have been granted. “The record is almost entirely devoid of any interactions between defendant and [his brother] or defendant and [the girlfriend] from which the formation of any agreement can be inferred.” Id. at 13. The court acknowledged that “synchronized, parallel conduct” among defendants can support an inference of criminal agreement but rejected the State’s argument that such circumstances existed here. According to the court:

. . . [S]uch an inference would be far stronger where the conduct at issue is more synchronized, more parallel, and more clearly in furtherance of a crime. . .Moreover, while defendant was acquitted of the charges of harassment of a juror by threats or intimidation and we express no opinion on the sufficiency of the evidence with respect to those charges, the evidence was far from overwhelming. Put simply, this is not a situation like a drug transaction or bank robbery where it is evident that an unlawful act has occurred, and where the degree of coordination associated with those unlawful acts renders an inference of ‘mutual, implied understanding’ between participants far more reasonable. Id. 13-14 (citations omitted).

The matter was therefore reversed and remanded for the conviction to be vacated. In light of its holding, the court declined to consider the First Amendment challenges to the statute.

Justice Ervin dissented, joined by Justices Davis and Newby. According to the dissent, the majority failed to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, and the trial court should have been affirmed as to the sufficiency of evidence. Without expressing an opinion on the merits of the issue, the dissenters would have therefore proceeded to examine the defendant’s First Amendment challenges.