State v. Ryan, 371 N.C. 445 (Sept. 27, 2019)

After a hung jury and mistrial in 2009, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon in 2010 and sentenced to death. Defendant appealed, but the case was remanded to the trial court to resolve the defendant’s post-conviction motions, including a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. After conducting a hearing on the MAR, the trial court found that the defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel and ordered the convictions vacated. In its written order, the trial court found that the state’s DNA expert “failed to follow scientific protocol and included scientifically invalid interpretations of DNA samples,” and defendant’s counsel was deficient for failing to obtain an expert to assist him in cross-examining the state’s expert and presenting a contrary interpretation. Additionally, the trial court found that defendant’s counsel was deficient for failing to call three witnesses who could have testified in support of defendant’s alibi or impeached other witnesses. The defense witnesses also could have testified that they were “threatened…with criminal charges if they testified in criminal court in accordance with their out of court statements,” a fact that “should have been brought to the attention of the trial court and the jury.” The state appealed the order granting the MAR, and argued that the trial court: (i) made findings in its order that were not supported by the evidence developed at the hearing; (ii) overstated the significance of the flawed DNA evidence in light of other evidence of the defendant’s guilt; and (iii) misapplied the standard for evaluating ineffective assistance of counsel under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), which requires showing that counsel’s performance “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” as well as “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.”

In a per curiam decision, three justices voted to affirm the order granting the MAR and three justices voted to reverse it. (Justice Ervin did not participate in the decision.) As a result, the superior court’s order granting the MAR and vacating the defendant’s conviction is undisturbed, but stands without precedential value. [Note: the per curiam opinion does not include a factual summary or legal analysis. To review the parties’ arguments, see Appellant’s Brief (12/21/18), Appellee’s Brief (2/22/19), and Appellant’s Reply Brief(3/11/19).]