State v. Smith, COA22-719, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jun. 6, 2023)

In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing five separate errors by the trial court and contending the cumulative prejudice of those errors entitled him to a new trial. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In June of 2017, the victim was shot in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Asheville by a man in a black hoodie. At the time of the shooting, defendant was sixteen years of age. A witness from the scene later identified defendant as the man in the hoodie, picking his photograph out of a selection of potential subjects. The witness also gave a written statement of the events to detectives. Another witness, defendant’s cousin, also identified him as the shooter during a recorded interview with detectives. At trial, both witnesses were called to testify. Defendant’s cousin testified she was unable to recall the events around the shooting, and the prosecutor moved to have the recording of her interview played for the jury under Rule of Evidence 803(5). Over defense counsel’s objection, the trial court permitted playing the video. The detectives also testified regarding the interviews of both witnesses. Defendant was subsequently convicted and appealed. 

Defendant argued the first error was a failure to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder. The Court of Appeals disagreed, explaining that the prosecution had proven each element of first-degree murder, and no evidence was admitted negating any element. Walking through defendant’s points, the court noted (1) despite defendant’s claim that he used marijuana earlier in the day of the shooting, voluntary intoxication only negated specific intent if the defendant was intoxicated at the time the crime was committed; (2) no case law supported the argument that defendant’s age (16 years old) negated the elements of first-degree murder; (3) provocation by a third party could not excuse defendant’s actions towards the victim; and (4) defendant’s statement to a witness that he was “angry” at the victim but only intended to fight him did not prevent a finding of premeditation and deliberation where no evidence was admitted to show his anger reached a level “such as to disturb the faculties and reason.” Slip Op. at 19. 

The second error alleged by defendant was a special jury instruction requested by defense counsel on intent, premeditation, and deliberation for adolescents. The court explained that while defense counsel’s requested instruction might be supported by scientific research, no evidence was admitted on adolescent brain function, and “[d]efendant’s age is not considered nor contemplated in the analysis of premeditation and deliberation, therefore, this instruction would be incorrect and likely to mislead the jury.” Id. at 22. 

The third alleged error was playing the interview video and introducing the photo lineup identification provided by defendant’s cousin. Defendant argued she did not testify the events were fresh in her mind at the time of the recording, and the interview and lineup did not correctly reflect her knowledge of the shooting. The court disagreed with both arguments, explaining that the trial court found the recording was made two days after the shooting and concluded it was fresh in her memory. The court also explained that the witness did not disavow her statements, and provided a signature and initials on identification paperwork, justifying a finding that her testimony and identification were correct. Defendant also argued that admitting the interview and identification were improper under Rule of Evidence 403. The court disagreed, explaining that the interview was highly probative of defendant’s motive, outweighing the danger of unfair prejudice. 

Considering the fourth alleged error, that the identification evidence from the first witness was tainted by impermissibly suggestive interview techniques by the detectives, the court noted that defendant did not present arguments as to why the procedures were unnecessarily suggestive. Although defendant did not properly argue the first step of the two-step determination process for impermissibly suggestive techniques, the court addressed the second step of the analysis anyway, applying the five-factor test from State v. Grimes, 309 N.C. 606 (1983), to determine there was no error in admitting the witness’s identification of defendant. Slip Op. at 31. 

Finally, the court considered defendant’s argument that it was error to permit the detectives to offer improper lay opinions about the witnesses’ “forthcoming” and “unequivocal” participation in identifying defendant. Id. at 32. Defendant failed to object at trial, so the court applied a plain error standard to the review. The court did not believe that the statements were comments on the witnesses’ credibility, but even assuming that admission was error, the court concluded that admission was not plain error due to the other evidence of guilt in the record. Because the court found no error in any of the five preceding arguments, the court found no cumulative prejudice justifying a new trial. 

Judge Murphy concurred, but concurred in result only for Parts II-E (Detective’s Statements) and II-F (Cumulative Prejudice). Id. at 35.