State v. Reid, 380 N.C. 646 (Mar. 11, 2022)

In this Lee County case, the trial judge granted a motion for appropriate relief and awarded a new trial for a defendant who was convicted of first-degree murder committed when he was fourteen years old, largely on the basis of a confession made during a police interrogation conducted outside the presence of a parent or guardian. Years later, postconviction counsel located a new witness who claimed a different person had confessed to the crime, exculpating the defendant. The trial court found the new witness’s testimony credible and granted the MAR based on the newly discovered evidence and ordered a new trial. The Court of Appeals reversed, saying the trial court abused its discretion and erred in granting a new trial, in that the defendant’s affidavit failed multiple prongs of the seven-factor test for evaluating newly discovered evidence set forth in State v. Beaver, 291 N.C. 137 (1976). State v. Reid, 274 N.C. App. 100 (2020).

After allowing the defendant’s petition for discretionary review, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the trial court properly applied the Beaver test. First, the trial court did not err in concluding that the newly discovered evidence was “probably true,” despite the inconsistencies in the new witness’s testimony. It was the factfinder’s role—not the role of the Court of Appeals—to evaluate the credibility of the witness and make findings of fact, which are binding on appeal if supported by the evidence. The Court of Appeals thus erred by reweighing the evidence and making its own findings as to whether the new evidence was “probably true.”

Second, the trial court did not err in finding that the defendant’s trial counsel had exercised due diligence in attempting to procure the newly discovered evidence. The trial court’s findings that an investigator had earlier attempted to find the new witness and that those efforts were unsuccessful due in part to interference by the witness’s mother were supported by the evidence and binding on appeal. The Court noted that the “due diligence” prong of the Beaver test requires “reasonable diligence,” not that the defendant have done “everything imaginable” to procure the purportedly new evidence at trial. Where, as here, neither the defendant nor his lawyer knew whether the sought-after witness actually had any information about the victim’s killing, hiring an investigator was deemed reasonable diligence without the need to take additional steps such as issuing an subpoena or asking for a continuance.

Third, the Court concluded that the trial judge did not err in concluding that the new witness’s testimony was “competent” even though it was hearsay. The evidence was admitted without objection by the State, and was therefore competent. And in any event, the test for competence within the meaning of the Beaver test is not admissibility at the MAR hearing, but rather whether it would be material, competent, and relevant in a future trial if the MAR were granted. Here, the trial court properly concluded that the new witness’s testimony would have been admissible at trial under the residual hearsay exception of Rule 803(24).

Finally, the trial court did not err in concluding that the addition of the newly discovered evidence would probably result in a different outcome in another trial. Though the defendant’s confession was admissible, it was nonetheless the confession of a fourteen-year-old and might therefore receive less probative weight in a case like this where the other evidence of the defendant’s guilt was not overwhelming.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for a new trial.

Chief Justice Newby, joined by Justice Barringer, dissented. He wrote that the defendant failed to meet the “due diligence” prong of the Beaver test in that he did not take reasonable action at trial to procure the evidence he later argued was newly discovered. The Chief Justice disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that hiring an investigator was enough. Rather, he wrote, the defense lawyer should have gone to the trial court for assistance in obtaining testimony from the witness (such as through a material witness order), or spoken to other witnesses who likely had the same information (such as the sought-after witness’s brother).