State v. Watson, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-186 (May. 4, 2021)

The defendant was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder under the felony-murder rule. The underlying felony was statutory rape of a child under 13. And yet the jury acquitted the defendant of the charge of statutory rape of a child under 13.  The defendant appealed, arguing that statutory rape of a child under 13 could not support a felony-murder conviction because it lacks the necessary intent to support such a charge. He also argued that because the jury acquitted him of the predicate felony, his first-degree murder conviction must be vacated. The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments.

(1) The Court of Appeals determined that while the offense of statutory rape does not require that the defendant intended to commit a sexual act with an underage person, it does require that the defendant intend to commit a sexual act with the victim. The Court held that this intent satisfies the intent required for a crime to serve as the basis for a felony-murder charge. The Court distinguished the sort of intent required to engage in vaginal intercourse with a victim from the culpable negligence required to commit the offense of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury based on driving a vehicle while impaired, which the court held in State v. Jones, 353 N.C. 159 (2000), was insufficient to support a felony-murder charge. Statutory rape requires that the person be purposely resolved to participate in the conduct that comprises the criminal offense.

(2) The Court of Appeals determined that the jury verdicts finding the defendant (a) guilty of felony murder with statutory rape as the underlying felony but (b) not guilty of statutory rape were inconsistent but were not legally contradictory or, in other words, mutually exclusive. The Court of Appeals reasoned that a jury could rely on the act of committing statutory rape to support a felony murder conviction without also having a conviction of statutory rape. Indeed, the State could proceed to trial on such a felony murder theory without also charging statutory rape.

The Court noted that a defendant is not entitled to relief for a merely inconsistent verdict as it is not clear in such circumstances “‘whose ox has been gored.’” (Slip op. at ¶ 44 (quoting United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57, 65 (1984)). The jury may have thought the defendant was not guilty. Equally possibly, it may have reached an inconsistent verdict through mistake, compromise, or lenity. The defendant receives the benefit of the acquittal, but must accept the burden of conviction.