State v. Walker, 2022-NCCOA-745, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Nov. 15, 2022)

In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon, arguing the trial court erred by (1) denying his motions to dismiss, (2) giving an improper jury instruction on deliberation, and (3) failing to give defendant’s requested “stand your ground” instruction. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In 2017, defendant was at a house drinking alcohol with two other men when an argument broke out between defendant and the eventual victim. The victim yelled in defendant’s face and spit on him, threatening to kill defendant the next time he saw him. Notably, the victim’s threat was to kill defendant at a later time, and the victim stated he would not do so in the house where they were drinking. After the victim yelled in defendant’s face, defendant drew a pistol and shot the victim six times; defendant fled the scene and did not turn himself in until 18 days later.

Reviewing the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motions to dismiss, the court noted that “evidence of a verbal altercation does not serve to negate a charge of first-degree murder when ‘there was other evidence sufficient to support the jury’s finding of both deliberation and premeditation.’” Slip Op. at 8, quoting State v. Watson, 338 N.C. 168, 178 (1994). The court found such evidence in the instant case, with defendant’s prior history of quarrels with the victim, the number of gunshots, defendant’s fleeing the scene and remaining on the run for 18 days, and with defendant’s statements to his girlfriend regarding his intention to deny the charges.

The court then turned to the disputed jury instructions, first explaining that defendant’s request for an additional explanation on deliberation beyond that contained in Pattern Jury Instruction 206.1 was based on a dissenting opinion in State v. Patterson, 288 N.C. 553 (1975) which carried no force of law, and the instruction given contained adequate explanation of the meaning of “deliberation” for first-degree murder. Slip Op. at 11. The court next considered the “stand your ground” instruction, comparing the trial court’s instruction on self-defense to the version offered by defendant. Looking to State v. Benner, 380 N.C. 621 (2022), the court found that “the use of deadly force cannot be excessive and must still be proportional even when the defendant has no duty to retreat and is entitled to stand his ground.” Slip Op. at 14. The court also noted that the “stand your ground” statute requires proportionality in defendant’s situation, explaining “[d]efendant could use deadly force against the victim under [N.C.G.S. §] 14-51.3(a) only if it was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm, i.e., if it was proportional.” Id. at 16-17. Finally, the court determined that even if the trial court erred in failing to give the instruction, it was not prejudicial, as overwhelming evidence in the record showed that defendant was not under threat of imminent harm, noting “[l]ethal force is not a proportional response to being spit on.” Id. at 17.