State v. Richardson, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb. 18, 2020)

The defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 73 to 100 months in prison for shooting her boyfriend, Timothy Lee Fry, with whom she had lived for approximately three years. The evidence showed that their relationship was good at first but started to deteriorate after about a year. Fry verbally and physically abused her. He would choke her, pull her hair, and push her face. A gun enthusiast who kept loaded guns around the house, Fry would point the laser sight at the defendant’s forehead and chest. The abuse also included repeated instances in which Fry would coerce her into having sex with him and other, older men. The defendant suffered from depression and had once attempted suicide. On the day of the shooting, the defendant returned home from work to find Fry in the basement of their home. He asked her to go with him to South Carolina to have sex with an older man. When she refused, Fry held a handgun to her chest, acted like he was pulling the trigger, and told her he would kill her if she didn’t go. The defendant went upstairs. When she returned to the basement, Fry repeated that he was going to kill her if she didn’t go and grabbed where the gun was and started towards her. The defendant grabbed a shotgun leaning against the bathroom wall and fired five rounds, hitting him four times. The defendant testified, “The closer he came, the more I would shoot because he wouldn’t stop, he just kept coming towards me.” After each shot, she had to load a new shell into the chamber, push the slide forward, and pull the trigger. Two shots entered Fry’s chest. Another two entered through his left arm and armpit, traveling through his left lung and fracturing five ribs. The State’s forensic pathologist testified that any one of the shots would have been enough to incapacitate and kill Fry. Three bullet holes from the shotgun’s slugs were found in the carpet beneath Fry’s body, suggesting that he was on the ground when shot; and each of the four bullet wounds had a downward trajectory. After shooting Fry, the defendant called 911 and told the operator that she had shot her boyfriend.

The trial judge instructed the jury on first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, self-defense, voluntary intoxication, and diminished capacity. In the final mandate on voluntary manslaughter, the offense for which the defendant was convicted, the trial judge instructed the jury as follows but without the underlined phrase:


If you find from the evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that on or about the alleged date the defendant intentionally wounded the alleged victim with a deadly weapon and thereby proximately caused the alleged victim’s death, and that the defendant . . . used excessive force, it would be your duty to find the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, even if the State has failed to prove that the defendant did not act in self-defense.

The Court of Appeals held that the defendant failed to preserve the erroneous omission of the underlined language for appellate review. The defendant did not object to the omission and, after the judge excused the jury to commence its deliberations, did not request any modifications to the instructions when asked by the judge. The Court distinguished decisions finding no waiver in which the trial judge agreed to give a specific instruction and failed to give it altogether rather than omitting a portion of the instruction as in this case. Reviewing the instruction for plain error, the Court found that the defendant failed to show reversible error because the trial judge in other portions of the jury instructions included the language omitted from the final mandate.