State v. Williams, 2022-NCCOA-562, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Aug. 16, 2022)

In this Edgecombe County case, two defendants, Defendant W and Defendant P, were jointly tried, and appealed their convictions for robbery with a dangerous weapon and felon in possession of a firearm. The Court of Appeals found no prejudicial error for either defendant and affirmed the convictions, but did identify a harmless error by the trial court when it delegated duties under N.C.G.S. § 15A-1213 to the prosecutor.

The defendants were convicted for a robbery that occurred outside a food mart in Rocky Mount. Evidence admitted at trial showed that Defendant W was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet that placed him at the scene of the robbery, his appearance that day matched eyewitness descriptions of the suspect and matched him with the suspect on surveillance footage. Defendant P was later apprehended based on the description of eyewitnesses and surveillance footage, and admitted to police he was present at the food mart the night the robbery took place. The Court of Appeals reviewed each defendant’s appeals separately in the opinion.

Considering Defendant P’s first grounds for appeal, the court examined whether the use of video showing Defendant P in shackles was prejudicial and a violation of his due process right to the presumption of innocence. After exploring the lack of binding precedent on using video of a shackled defendant, the court determined that, regardless of the applicable standard of review, Defendant P could not show prejudice based on the video. The court explained that the trial court gave an instruction to the jury immediately prior to playing the video not to draw any inference from the shackles, and overwhelming evidence of Defendant P’s guilt was present in the record even if the jury disregarded the trial court’s instructions. The court also held that N.C.G.S. § 15A-1031 was not applicable as this was not a physical restrain in the courtroom.

Defendant P also raised the issue of his habitual felon status being cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions. However, the court found that Defendant P did not raise the issue at trial and thus did not preserve the objection for appellate review.

Examining Defendant W’s grounds for appeal, the court first looked at the argument that his counsel had an actual conflict of interest that effected counsel’s performance during the trial. The record showed that Defendant W’s attorney admitted he had represented one of the key eyewitnesses approximately seven years prior. The Court of Appeals applied the multi-step test from State v. Choudhry, 365 N.C. 215 (2011), to determine the nature of the conflict and whether it represented actual prejudice to the defendant. Slip Op. at ¶51. The court found that, although the trial court did not conduct an adequate inquiry into the conflict, Defendant W could not show any adverse effect on his counsel’s performance based on the conflict. After determining no adverse effect on Defendant W’s counsel, the court concluded that Defendant W could not show any actual prejudicial error as a result of the conflict.

On Defendant W’s second argument, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court violated N.C.G.S. § 15A-1213 by delegating to the prosecutor the duty of reading the charges, victims, and dates of offense to prospective jurors. Defendant W argued that the trial court intimated or expressed an opinion on the case in the presence of the jury, justifying a new trial. While the Court of Appeals agreed that N.C.G.S. § 15A-1213 was violated, the court did not agree that the violation rose to the level of prejudice justifying a new trial, instead finding harmless error. The court pointed out that the trial court read instructions to the jury regarding judicial impartiality, and stated “the jurors would not have gone into the jury room thinking the judge had implied any opinion by having the prosecutor give part of the case overview; the jury instructions explicitly told them not to make such inferences.” Slip Op. at ¶79. The court also noted that Defendant W was acquitted of more serious charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, suggesting the jury considered all the charges separately.