State v. Smith, COA22-880, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Jul. 18, 2023)

In this Cumberland County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder by torture, arguing error in (1) denying his motion to dismiss for failure to prove proximate cause, and (2) admitting testimony from two experts for the State. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In November of 2015, the victim, defendant’s 3-year-old daughter, was admitted to the hospital unconscious and with a body temperature of only 88 degrees. The care team at the hospital observed injuries that were indicative of physical and sexual abuse, including tearing of the victim’s anus and bruising on her labia and inner thighs, as well as contusions and hemorrhaging under the skin on her limbs and torso. The victim ultimately died at the hospital, and the cause of death was identified as “acute and organizing bilateral bronchopneumonia in the setting of malnutrition, neglect and sexual abuse.” Slip Op. at 5. At trial, the State called the emergency physician who treated the victim, as well as two other experts, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy and a developmental and forensic pediatrician. Defendant did not object to their testimony at trial. Defendant moved to dismiss the charges at the close of State’s evidence, arguing insufficient evidence to show that he withheld food or hydration to proximately cause the victim’s death. The trial court denied the motion, and defendant was subsequently convicted.  

Taking up (1), the Court of Appeals held that defendant’s conduct was torture sufficient to support the conviction. The court established that first-degree murder by torture does not require a showing of premeditation or specific intent to kill the victim, only a “course of conduct by one or more persons which intentionally inflicts grievous pain and suffering upon another for the purpose of punishment, persuasion, or sadistic pleasure.” Id. at 10, quoting State v. Anderson, 346 N.C. 158 (1997). Here extensive evidence in the record showed that the victim did not eat around defendant and lost weight when in his care. Evidence also showed that defendant would beat the victim for her lack of appetite, and defendant would withhold water from her as punishment. The court concluded that “[b]eating [the victim] with a belt, forcing her to exercise, withholding water, and sexually assaulting her” clearly constituted torture. Slip Op. at 11-12. The court then turned to proximate cause, explaining “[f]ar from being unfortunate and independent causes, [the victim’s] starvation and pneumonia are the ‘natural result’ of Defendant’s ‘criminal act[s]’ of violently and sexually abusing [the victim] . . . there was no break in the causal chain.” Id. at 15. Because the victim’s death was a reasonably foreseeable result of defendant’s actions when applying the standard of a “person of ordinary prudence,” the court concluded there was no error in denying defendant’s motion. Id. at 16. 

Looking to (2), the court applied a plain error standard as defendant did not object at trial to the testimony of either expert. Explaining that Rule of Evidence 702 governs expert testimony, the court first noted that it did not see error in the testimony of either expert. Presuming an error was committed, the court concluded the jury would likely have reached the same verdict without the challenged testimony due to the sheer weight of evidence against defendant.