State v. Steen, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec. 18, 2020)

The defendant appealed from his conviction for the first-degree murder of his grandfather based on the felony murder rule using the attempted murder of his mother with a deadly weapon as the predicate felony. The trial court instructed the jury that it could find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder if it found that he killed his grandfather as part of a continuous transaction during which he also attempted to murder his mother using either his hands or arms or a garden hoe as a deadly weapon. The defendant appealed, arguing that his hands and arms were not properly considered a deadly weapon for purposes of the felony murder rule and that the trial court’s erroneous instruction that the jury could find that he attempted to murder his mother using a garden hoe was prejudicial error.

The defendant was at the home of his mother and grandfather on November 5, 2013. He owed money to both and they had recently told him that they would lend him no more.  As his mother went outside the defendant followed behind her, saying he was leaving to go to work. His mother walked into a storage shed behind the house, where she remained for five or 10 minutes. She did not hear the defendant get into his car or hear the vehicle leave. While she was in the shed, she thought she heard raised voices. She came out to check on her father. As she walked toward the house, she felt someone put an arm around her neck. Her attacker put a hand over her nose and mouth and she lost consciousness. The next thing she remembered was someone opening her eyelid as she lay on the ground. She saw defendant’s face and thought he was there to help her.

The defendant worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., returning home the following morning. When he got home he saw that his mother had been attacked and called for emergency assistance. The defendant’s grandfather was dead when the paramedics arrived. He was face down near the back door, covered in blood, with a large pool of blood around his head. A garden hoe covered in blood was next to his body. The grandfather’s wallet was near his body and did not contain the money usually kept there.

The defendant denied his involvement in the assault and murder. He gave different explanations for the presence of scratches on his arm. DNA evidence from the scene did not connect him to the crime. The defendant’s mother (who experienced a traumatic brain injury) initially told investigators that the defendant left the home before she was attacked and said the person who attacked her was shorter than the defendant and was wearing a ski mask. She testified differently at trial, stating that it was the defendant who had choked her and that there had been no ski mask.

The trial court instructed the jury on multiple theories of first-degree murder, including the felony-murder rule using the attempted murder of the defendant’s mother as the predicate felony. As to the deadly weapon requirement, the court told the jury that the “State contends and the defendant denies that the defendant used his hands and/or arms, and or a garden hoe as a deadly weapon.” The jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder based on this theory, and the defendant appealed.

The supreme court relied upon a “virtually uninterrupted line of appellate decisions from this Court and the Court of Appeals interpreting the reference to a ‘deadly weapon’ in N.C.G.S. § 14-17(a) to encompass the use of a defendant’s hands, arms, feet, or other appendages” and the “fact that the General Assembly has not taken any action tending to suggest that N.C.G.S. § 14-17(a) should be interpreted in a manner that differs from the interpretation deemed appropriate in this line of decisions” to establish that the General Assembly intended for the term “deadly weapon” to include a defendant’s hands, arms, feet or other appendages. The court rejected the defendant’s invitation to overrule or limit to child victims its holding in State v. Pierce, 346 N.C. 471 (1997) that the offense of felony child abuse could serve as the predicate felony for felony-murder when the defendant used his hands as a deadly weapon in the course of committing the abuse. The court also rejected the defendant’s invitation to rely on State v. Hinton, 361 N.C. 207 (2007) for the proposition that the term “deadly weapon” has different meanings in different contexts and should have a felony-murder specific definition. The Hinton court held that the reference to “any firearms or other dangerous weapon, implement or means” as used in N.C.G.S. § 14-87(a) (defining robbery with a dangerous weapon) did not encompass the use of a defendant’s hands because the statute was intended to provide a “more severe punishment when the robbery is committed with the ‘use or threatened use of firearms or other dangerous weapons’” than when the defendant committed common law robbery, which did not involve the use of such implements. The court reasoned that the logic in Hinton had no application to its interpretation of the felony-murder statute as nothing in the language or legislative history of G.S. 14-17 suggested that its reference to “deadly weapon” should be defined in a way that differed from the traditional definition, which included a person’s appendages.

Finally, the court rejected the notion that its interpretation meant that every killing perpetrated with the use of a defendant’s hands, arm, legs, or other appendages could constitute felony murder, thus undermining the General Assembly’s attempt to limit the scope of the rule when it revised the statute in 1977. The court noted that the extent to which hands, arms, legs, and other appendages can be deemed deadly weapons depends upon the nature and circumstances of their use, including the extent to which there is a size and strength disparity between the perpetrator and his or her victim. Moreover, something more than a killing with hands, arms, legs, or other bodily appendages must be shown (a felony) to satisfy the rule.

The court then considered whether the trial court’s instructions to the jury that it could find that the defendant attempted to murder his mother using a garden hoe was prejudicial error, concluding that it was as there was a reasonable possibility that the jury would not have convicted the defendant of first-degree murder without the erroneous instruction. The court explained that to conclude otherwise, “[w]e would be required to hold that the State’s evidence that defendant killed his grandfather as part of a continuous transaction in which he also attempted to murder his mother using his hands and arms as a deadly weapon was so sufficiently strong that no reasonable possibility exists under which the jury would have done anything other than convict defendant of first-degree murder on the basis of that legal theory.” The sharply disputed evidence over whether the defendant was the perpetrator, including the lack of physical evidence, the defendant’s trial testimony, and the conflicting nature of the statements made by the defendant’s mother, prevented the court from concluding that the error was harmless. Even more central to the court’s analysis was the dispute over the extent to which the defendant’s hands and arms were a deadly weapon. The court noted that although the size and strength differential between defendant and his mother was sufficient to permit a determination that defendant’s hands and arms constituted a deadly weapon, the differences were not so stark as to preclude a reasonable jury from concluding that defendant’s hands and arms were not a deadly weapon. If the jury had reasonably concluded that the defendant’s hands and arms were not used as a deadly weapon, it could not have convicted the defendant of the first-degree murder of his grandfather on the basis of the felony-murder rule, contrary to the suggestion in the jury instruction. As a result, the Court held that the trial court’s instruction concerning the use of the garden hoe as a deadly weapon during defendant’s alleged attempt to murder his mother was prejudicial error necessitating a new trial for the murder of his grandfather.

Justice Newby, joined by Justice Morgan, concurred in part and dissented in part. He agreed with the majority that the defendant’s hands and arms were deadly weapons, but disagreed that the instruction regarding the garden hoe resulted in prejudicial error.

Justice Earls concurred in the result only in part and dissented in part. She agreed with the majority that the instruction regarding the garden hoe was error warranting a new trial. She dissented from the majority’s conclusion that a jury could properly consider a person’s hands, arms, feet, or other body parts to be deadly weapons for purposes of the felony murder statute, reasoning that the legislative history and spirit of the statute demonstrate that the deadly weapon requirement refers to an external instrument.