State v. Prince, ___ N.C. ___, 2021-NCSC-40 (Apr. 16, 2021)

With one justice not participating in the case and the remaining six justices divided equally, the decision of the Court of Appeals was left undisturbed and stands without precedential value. The decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 843 S.E.2d 700 (2020), was previously summarized as follows:

The defendant was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury (Class C felony) and assault by strangulation (Class H felony) based on his assault of his wife. The defendant’s wife was rendered unconscious during the assault and was hospitalized for three days as a result of her injuries, which include bruises around her neck, brain bleed, multiple contusions, and burst blood vessels in her eyes.

The trial court consolidated the offense for judgment and sentenced the defendant to a minimum of 73 and a maximum of 100 months imprisonment.

The assault by strangulation statute, G.S. 14-32.4(b), provides that “[u]nless the conduct is covered under some other provision of law providing greater punishment, any person who assaults another person and inflicts physical injury by strangulation is guilty of a Class H felony.” Id. (emphasis added).

The defendant argued that on appeal that because his assaultive conduct was covered by a statute providing greater punishment—namely, the offense of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, for which he was convicted—the trial court violated the statutory mandate in G.S. 14-32.4(b) when it sentenced him for assault by strangulation.

The State argued that there were two separate assaults supporting each of the charges. The assault leading to the more serious offense was with fists. The other assault was by strangulation.

Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals agreed with the defendant. It rejected the State’s argument on the basis that there was no evidence of a distinct interruption between the assaultive conduct. Instead, the evidence showed that the victim’s injuries resulted from a single, if prolonged, assaultive act. The appellate court held that because the two offenses arose from the same conduct, the trial court erred in sentencing the defendant for assault by strangulation. The court vacated the defendant’s conviction for assault by strangulation and remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing.

A dissenting judge would have found no error on the basis that an assault by intentionally strangling the victim is not the same conduct as intentionally striking the victim with fists or hands.