State v. Shuler, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022-NCCOA-96 (Feb. 15, 2022)

The facts of this Haywood County case were previously summarized here following the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Shuler, 2021-NCSC-89, 378 N.C. 337, 861 S.E.2d 512 (Aug. 13, 2021) (Shuler I). The North Carolina Supreme Court held in Shuler Ithat the Court of Appeals erred by admitting testimony regarding the defendant’s pre-arrest silence before the defendant testified at trial. Shuler I held that the defendant did not forfeit her Fifth Amendment right when she provided notice of her intent to invoke an affirmative defense and that the State may not preemptively impeach a defendant who has not testified. The North Carolina Supreme Court remanded the case to the Court of Appeals to determine whether the erroneously admitted testimony was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

On remand, the Court of Appeals held that admission of the improper evidence was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The evidence consisted of a detective’s testimony that at the time the defendant was discovered with drugs she did not make any statements about the person she later contended had threatened her in order to convince her to hold on to the drugs. The Court of Appeals reasoned that this testimony related solely to the affirmative defense of duress, a defense that was supported only by the defendant’s testimony and which the jury was “clearly likely” to have rejected. Id. at 14. The Court concluded there was substantial and overwhelming evidence that the defendant knowingly possessed the drugs for which she was charged. It further noted that the State made no additional references to the defendant’s pre-arrest silence following the detective’s testimony and did not reference the defendant’s silence in closing argument. The Court thus deemed the impact of the reference to the defendant’s silence to be de minimis.