State v. Williamson, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Jun. 16, 2020)

In this robbery case where the defendant was punished as a habitual felon, (1) the defendant failed to preserve a fatal variance argument; (2) there was insufficient evidence of attempted armed robbery; (3) assuming without deciding that the trial court expressed its opinion in violation of G.S. 15A-1222, the defendant was not prejudiced; and (4) the trial court erred by accepting the defendant’s stipulation to having attained habitual felon status.  

Noting that a defendant must specifically state at trial that a fatal variance is the basis for a motion to dismiss in order to preserve that argument for appellate review, the court found that the defendant waived his variance argument by basing his motion to dismiss solely on insufficiency of the evidence. 

With regard to insufficiency of the evidence of attempted armed robbery, the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence of the use of a dangerous weapon.  The defendant had threatened an associate with a pistol and rifle that appeared to be firearms but turned out to be an air pistol and a pellet rifle.  Reviewing the rules from State v. Allen, 317 N.C. 119 (1986) and related cases about sufficiency of the evidence in situations involving instruments that appear to be but may not in fact be dangerous weapons, the court said that because the evidence was conclusive that the pistol and rifle were not firearms, the State was required to introduce evidence of the weapons’ “capability to inflict death or great bodily injury” to merit submission of the attempted armed robbery charge to the jury.  As no such evidence was introduced, the trial court erred in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence.

During the testimony of a defense witness, the trial court interjected to admonish the witness not to refer to the pistol and rifle as “airsoft” weapons because, in the trial court’s view, that terminology was not an accurate description of the items.  Assuming without deciding that this admonishment was an improper expression of opinion and accepting for argument that it may have negatively impacted the jury’s view of the witness’s testimony, there was not a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different verdict absent the admonishment.

Finally, the State conceded and the court agreed that the trial court erred by accepting the defendant’s stipulation to having attained habitual felon status without conducting the required guilty plea colloquy.