State v. Rubenstahl, COA23-314, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Dec. 19, 2023)

In this Cumberland County case, defendant appealed his first-degree murder conviction, arguing error in failing to instruct the jury on (1) the affirmative defense of voluntary intoxication, and (2) the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding no error. 

Defendant’s wife was found dead in their home in February of 2021. Leading up to the discovery, defendant’s wife had expressed fears that he would shoot her, and told family and friends that defendant kept a handgun on the nightstand. The wife’s pastor and deacon from her church noticed bruises on her neck, and she admitted to them that they came from defendant. Early in the morning on the day defendant’s wife was found dead, defendant called his daughter to confess that he had killed her. At trial, an expert testified that the wife was shot ten times with a single-action revolver, which required the shooter to cock the hammer and pull the trigger each time it was fired. The revolver also held only six rounds, requiring a reload for the ten rounds fired into the wife’s body. Defendant testified at trial and claimed that his wife’s niece had shot her. At the charge conference, defense counsel requested a jury instruction on second-degree murder, but the trial court denied this request. Defendant did not request an instruction on voluntary intoxication.

Considering (1) defendant’s defense of voluntary intoxication, the Court of Appeals noted the standard of review was plain error, as “the trial court explicitly asked if Defendant wanted to include voluntary or involuntary intoxication instructions, to which his counsel declined.” Slip Op. at 4. The court could not find plain error, as defendant was a heavy drinker and testified that he had consumed a normal amount of alcohol for his tolerance, and “[i]n his own testimony, Defendant said he ‘got drunk’ after the killing because his wife was dead, indicating he was not already drunk during the killing.” Id. at 6. Additionally, he recalled the events of the day and night, and was clear-headed enough to attempt to hide the revolver before law enforcement arrived. 

Turning to (2), the court explained that a defendant is entitled to an instruction on second-degree murder “where the State’s evidence, if believed, is capable of conflicting reasonable inferences either that (1) the defendant premeditated/deliberated a specific intent to kill or, alternatively, (2) the defendant merely premeditated/deliberated an assault.” Id. at 9. Here, the court found only one possible conclusion, that “Defendant specifically intended to kill his wife.” Id. The court arrived at this conclusion based on the number of shots fired with a cumbersome weapon, the lack of defensive wounds, the history of defendant’s threats, and defendant’s history of physical abuse towards his wife.