State v. Parker, COA23-90, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Oct. 3, 2023)

In this Gates County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing (1) ineffective assistance of counsel, and error in (2) jury instructions and (3) failing to intervene ex mero motu during the State’s closing argument. The Court of Appeals found no ineffective assistance and no error. 

While entering a barbershop in December of 2018, defendant ran into an acquaintance (the victim) with whom he had a contentious relationship. The two exchanged words about defendant’s newborn daughter, where the acquaintance implied that defendant was not the father. Later that night after a series of phone calls, defendant and several friends went over to the acquaintance/victim’s house. After defendant arrived, he and the victim began arguing in the driveway, leading to a fistfight. After several minutes, defendant walked backwards down the driveway while the victim continued to come towards him with his hands up; defendant then shot the victim five times. Defendant fled the scene but was later apprehended walking on the side of the road. At trial, defendant’s counsel told the jury that if they found defendant used excessive force to defend himself in the situation, that would be voluntary manslaughter, not murder. Counsel also stated in closing arguments that defendant intentionally went to the victim’s house, while defendant had testified that he had fallen asleep in his friend’s car and ended up at the house unintentionally. During the State’s closing argument, the prosecutor alerted the jury to the fact that the minimum sentence for voluntary manslaughter was 38 months, suggesting the punishment would not be severe enough for the serious crime committed. When providing jury instructions, the trial court instructed the jury on the aggressor doctrine but did not provide an instruction on stand your ground laws; defendant did not object to the instructions. 

Taking up (1), the Court of Appeals explained that defendant’s first argument regarding his counsel represented conceding guilt without prior consent, a prejudicial error under State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985). Defendant argued that his counsel’s statements regarding use of excessive force and voluntary manslaughter represented a concession or implication of defendant’s guilt. The court disagreed, explaining that defendant was charged with first-degree murder and “the transcript reveals his counsel advocating for the jury to find Defendant either not guilty, or guilty of voluntary manslaughter.” Slip Op. at 7-8. The court also disagreed with defendant that defense counsel contradicting his testimony represented ineffective assistance. The court explained that nothing else in the record supported defendant’s testimony that he fell asleep in the car and inadvertently ended up at the victim’s house. Additionally, the purpose of this contradiction was defense counsel’s attempt to convince the jury that defendant “lacked the requisite intent to be found guilty of first-degree murder.” Id. at 10.  

Reaching (2), the court explained that it reviewed the jury instructions for plain error because defendant did not object during the trial; after review, the court concluded “that jury instructions regarding the aggressor doctrine were warranted, and instructions on stand your ground laws were not.” Id. at 11. Here, testimony in the record suggested that defendant may have initiated the fight with the victim through a phone call prior to his arrival, justifying the use of the aggressor doctrine instruction. In contrast, the court could not find justification for the stand your ground laws instruction, as there was a lack of evidence supporting defendant’s lawful right to be at the residence where the conflict took place.

Finding no error in (3), the court explained that the prosecutor’s arguments were not grounds for trial court intervention, as “[w]hile suggesting that the minimum sentence would not be severe enough punishment might run afoul of the unspoken rules of courtroom etiquette, it is not, in fact, against the law.” Id. at 13.