State v. Pabon, 380 N.C. 241, 2022-NCSC-16 (Feb. 11, 2022)

The defendant was charged with second-degree rape and first-degree kidnapping in Cabarrus County and was convicted at trial. Benzodiazepines were found in the victim’s urine, and the State presented expert testimony at trial on the urinalysis results. The expert witness did not conduct the forensic testing but independently reviewed the test results. The defendant’s hearsay and Confrontation Clause objections were overruled. Expert testimony from another witness established the presence of a muscle relaxant in the victim’s hair sample and indicated that the two drugs in combination would cause substantial impairment. There was additional evidence of a substantial amount of the defendant’s DNA on the victim, as well as evidence of prior similar sexual assaults by the defendant admitted under Rule 404(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence. He was convicted of both charges and appealed. A divided Court of Appeals affirmed, finding no error (summarized here). Among other issues, the majority rejected the defendant’s arguments that the admission of the substitute analyst testimony and the 404(b) evidence was error. The defendant appealed the Confrontation Clause ruling and the North Carolina Supreme Court later granted discretionary review on the Rule 404(b) issue.

Assuming without deciding that admission of the substitute analyst testimony was error, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Testimony from the substitute analyst established the presence of benzodiazepines in the victim’s blood based first on a preliminary test, and then a confirmatory test. While the defendant objected to all of this testimony at trial, only the testimony regarding the confirmatory test was challenged on appeal. Thus, “[e]ven in the absence of [the substitute analyst’s] subsequent testimony regarding the confirmatory testing, there was still competent evidence before the jury of the presence of Clonazepam in [the victim’s] urine sample.” Pabon Slip op. at 23. The Court noted that evidence from the other analyst established a different impairing substance in the victim’s hair which could have explained the victim’s drugged state on its own. In light of this and other “overwhelming” evidence of guilt, any error here was harmless and did not warrant a new trial.

As to the 404(b) evidence, the Court likewise assumed without deciding that admission of evidence of the previous sexual assaults by the defendant against other women was error but determined that any error was not prejudicial under the facts. Unlike a case where the evidence amounts to a “credibility contest”—two different accounts of an encounter but lacking physical or corroborating evidence—here, there was “extensive” evidence of the defendant’s guilt. This included video of the victim in an impaired state soon before the assault and while in the presence of the defendant, testimony of a waitress and the victim’s mother regarding the victim’s impairment on the day of the offense, the victim’s account of the assault to a nurse examiner, the victim’s vaginal injury, the presence of drugs in the victim’s system, and the presence of the a significant amount of the defendant’s DNA on the victim’s chest, among other evidence. “We see this case not as simply a ‘credibility contest,’ but as one with overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt.” Id. at 34. Thus, even if the 404(b) evidence was erroneously admitted, it was unlikely that the jury would have reached a different result. The Court of Appeals decision was therefore modified and affirmed.

Chief Justice Newby concurred separately. He joined in the result but would not have discussed the defendant’s arguments in light of the Court’s assumption of error.