State v. Thomas, ___ N.C. App. ___, 834 S.E.2d 654 (Oct. 15, 2019)

The defendant was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder and other charges and appealed. He argued the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress, his motion to dismiss, and in admitting certain evidence. The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed. 

The trial court did not err in admitting evidence of a prior similar crime to prove the defendant’s identity under Rules of Evidence 401, 403, and 404. Evidence was presented at trial showing that the defendant committed crimes similar to those for which he was being tried (although he was not formally charged with these other bad acts). The defendant argued there was insufficient evidence that he committed the alleged acts and that the evidence violated the ban on propensity evidence in Rule 404(b). Rejecting this contention, the court found that the modus operandi of the prior crime was substantially similar to the current case and was admissible to show the defendant’s identity as the perpetrator. Specifically, the incidents shared the following characteristics:

(1) [T]he perpetrator wore a Jason-style white hockey mask with holes in it, similar to the one seized from defendant in Colorado; (2) the targets were all suspected drug dealers or living with suspected drug dealers; (3) the attacks all took place at night in the victims’ homes; (4) defendant had an accomplice; and (5) the incidents had both temporal and geographic proximity, most of them taking place within a month or two of each other, and within the same city.

Additionally, forensics from the incident recounted by the 404(b) witness matched the gun found on the defendant in Colorado. “All of this evidence supports a reasoned conclusion defendant was the perpetrator in this incident, and the common modus operandi helps establish his identity in the crimes he was charged with.” This was relevant evidence, and the court did not abuse its discretion in determining the evidence was more probative than prejudicial.