State v. Robinson, COA23-365, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Feb. 6, 2024)

In this Wake County case, defendant appealed his convictions for two counts of first-degree murder and four counts of discharging a weapon into an occupied vehicle, arguing error in (1) allowing certain text messages into evidence, and (2) denying his challenge to the jury pool. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In May of 2022, trial began on defendant’s charges; during jury selection, defendant challenged the makeup of the jury pool, arguing members of defendant’s race (Black) were underrepresented. Defendant offered statistical evidence to support his argument, but the trial court denied defendant’s challenge. During the trial, the State offered text messages between an accomplice of defendant and a third party, attempting to show motivation for the robbery that eventually led to the murders. Defendant objected to the messages, and the trial court only allowed admission of the accomplice’s text messages, not those from the third party. Defendant was subsequently convicted and appealed.  

Before reaching the merits of defendant’s arguments in (1), the Court of Appeals considered the basis for its review. At trial, defendant objected to the text messages “because they were hearsay, were not illustrative, and lacked a proper foundation.” Slip Op. at 6. However, on appeal, defendant did not raise these three issues, but instead argued the text messages were irrelevant, unfairly prejudicial, and violated the Confrontation Clause and defendant’s right to a fair trial. Because defendant attempted to change his arguments on appeal, he was limited to the plain-error standard; however, the court noted that defendant “failed to ‘specifically and distinctly . . . argue plain error.’” Id., quoting State v. Frye, 341 N.C. 470, 496 (1995). As a result, defendant was limited to the grounds under which he originally objected to the evidence at trial. But as noted above, defendant did not argue the three issues from trial on appeal. This meant that defendant had no valid arguments on appeal, and the court dismissed issue (1). 

Moving to (2), the court explained that under applicable precedent on the fair-cross-section requirement, statistical evidence about the composition of the jury pool alone is not enough to prove systematic exclusion of that group. Here defendant acknowledged that he did not admit sufficient evidence of all three factors under Duren v. Missouri, 439 U.S. 357 (1979), but attempted to reference other cases and the pervasive problem of disparity in jury pools across North Carolina. The court was not swayed by this argument, concluding defendant “only offers statistical evidence as proof of systematic exclusion, and without more, he fails to establish a fair-cross-section claim under Duren.” Slip Op. at 8-9.