State v. Turner, 273 N.C. App. 701 (Oct. 6, 2020)

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder in Person County. The victim was a neighbor with whom the defendant had long-running disputes. According to the defendant, he shot the neighbor in self-defense. The victim was shot 11 or 12 times, with the vast majority of the bullets having entered the victim from the back and side of his body. The State presented evidence from an experiment performed by a forensic firearms examiner attempting to replicate the production of the layout of bullet shell casings found at the scene in order to demonstrate the shooter’s location and to rebut the defendant’s self-defense claim. The expert only reported the results of the experiment and did not specifically opine about the shooter’s location. 

(1) Relying on cases pre-dating the adoption of the Rules of Evidence, the defendant argued this evidence was improperly admitted in violation of the “substantial similarity” test. These older cases imposed stricter requirements for the admission of “experimental evidence” – that is, evidence “about an experiment that is used to prove something about the actual events that occurred in the case.” Slip op. at 8. The defendant argued that these rules controlled, rather than Rule of Evidence 702. Under those cases, the standard of review on appeal of this issue would have been de novo, rather than the abuse of discretion standard applied to Rule 702 challenges. The defendant did not argue or cite to Rule 702 or to any cases applying the rule since the 2011 amendments adopting the Daubert standard for expert testimony. Rejecting this argument, the court found that later cases, even those pre-dating the 2011 amendment to Rule 702, had in fact adopted an abuse of discretion standard of review for experimental evidence. The court also rejected the notion that the substantial similarity test stood apart from Rule 702. “The notion of ‘substantial similarity’ for experimental evidence is one of the many ‘particular factors articulated in previous cases’ that is now baked into the third prong of Rule 702’s reliability test.” Id. at 10. Thus, pursuant to Rule 702, the standard of review is abuse of discretion. Even if the defendant’s argument that the evidence was erroneously admitted was not forfeited by his failure to argue Rule 702 or abuse of discretion, the trial court did not err in admitting the testimony. In the words of the court: “Here, the trial court’s determination that the experiment met the Rule 702 criteria was a reasoned one and not manifestly arbitrary. Thus, we cannot hold that the trial court abused its discretion.” Id. at 12.

(2) The defendant also argued that the trial court erred in qualifying the expert to give an opinion about shell ejection patterns. Voir dire of the expert revealed that he had not received training on ejection patterns of bullet shells, that no certification for this subject exists, and that he had not previously performed this type of experiment. According to the court, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in so qualifying the expert: “’[I]t is not necessary that an expert be experienced with the identical subject matter at issue or be a specialist’ as long as ‘the expert witness because of his expertise is in a better position to have an opinion on the subject than is the trier of fact.’” Id. at 14. Based on his extensive training and experience in the field of firearms, the trial court acted within its discretion and did not err in qualifying the expert.

The conviction was therefore unanimously affirmed with Judges Berger and Arrowood concurring.