State v. Williams, 283 N.C. App. 538 (Jun. 7, 2022)

In this Guilford County case, the defendant and the victim were cousins. They went out for an evening together, each accompanied by a girlfriend. The victim had a history of assaulting his girlfriend, and again that night became enraged and began beating her. The defendant shot the victim twice in the chest. He was charged with first-degree murder, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, and being a violent habitual felon. He pled guilty to the gun charge and went to trial on the others. The jury convicted him of second-degree murder and of being a violent habitual felon. He was sentenced to life in prison and appealed.

The principal issue concerned the jury instructions. The defendant asked for an instruction on the defense of another. The trial court ruled that he was disqualified from claiming the defense under G.S. 14-51.4, which makes that defense off-limits to a person who “[w]as attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of a felony,” in this case possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The trial judge therefore gave only a “limited” instruction on defense of others. The reviewing court said that this was error under State v. McLymore, 2022-NCSC-12, __ N.C. __ (2022), a case decided after the defendant’s trial. McLymore ruled that a person is disqualified under G.S. 14-51.4 only if there is a causal nexus between the felony and the need to use defensive force. There was no such nexus here, so the defendant was not disqualified and the jury should have been instructed on the defense of another.

The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred in denying his motion to dismiss based on defense of another. There was sufficient evidence that the defendant did not act in defense of another to submit the case to the jury, including evidence that the defendant was frustrated with the victim and that the victim’s girlfriend did not suffer severe injuries. Therefore, the court ordered a new trial with proper jury instructions.