State v. Wilson, COA21-34, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Nov. 7, 2023)

In this Cleveland County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and attempted robbery, arguing (1) error in denying his motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence based upon the impossibility of a witness’s testimony, and (2) inadequate Batson findings. The Court of Appeals majority found no error in (1), but remanded to the trial court in (2) for further findings under the guidance of State v. Hobbs, 374 N.C. 345 (2020). 

In October of 2016, several people were gathered at a home drinking alcohol and taking drugs. Early in the morning, a hooded gunman entered the house, exchanging gunfire with one of the victims and killing two victims while leaving a third paralyzed. One of the witnesses present at the scene identified defendant as the gunman, and defendant came to trial for the charges in March of 2020. After defendant was convicted, he appealed, and the Court of Appeals held this case in abeyance pending the resolution of State v. Campbell, 384 N.C. 126 (2023). 

In (1), defendant argued that the testimony of the witness identifying him as the gunman was physically impossible. The Court of Appeals first noted that to be “inherently incredible,” the testimony of the witness must be irreconcilable with “basic physical facts or laws of nature.” Slip Op. at 7. The court explained that “evidence is only inherently incredible where the alleged impossibility fundamentally undermines the reliability of the evidence as opposed to creating conflicts at the margins.” Id. at 10. Here, defendant pointed to three different issues with the witness’s testimony, but only one of those, the vantage point of the witness who saw the gunman shoot a victim in the living room, could have qualified as evidentiary impossibility. Defendant’s interpretation required the gunman to maintain a fixed location in the living room after speaking to the witness and subsequently shooting one of the victims. However, the witness’s testimony did not contain a statement that defendant stayed stationary, and nothing else ruled out the idea that the gunman stepped towards the victim before shooting her. Because nothing in the record fundamentally undermined the witness’s testimony, and a plausible explanation existed for the inconsistencies identified by defendant, the court did not find error in denying defendant’s motion. 

Defendant’s Batson challenge in (2) was based upon the State using two peremptory challenges on black female prospective jurors. Under Hobbs, a trial court must conduct the three-step Batson analysis by first deciding whether the defendant has made a prima facie showing of racial discrimination, then proceeding to hear the State’s race-neutral reasons for striking the jurors, and finally ruling on the merits of the Batsonchallenge after weighing the circumstances around the stricken jurors. Here, the trial court immediately requested the State’s input after hearing defendant’s objection and issued a ruling deciding the entire Batsonchallenge, “issuing no preliminary ruling on whether Defendant had made a prima facie case [of racial discrimination],” and rendering the first Batson step moot. Id. at 21-22. The trial court ruled after hearing the State’s race-neutral reasons for striking the jurors, “ma[king] the ruling, in substance, a ruling on the third step of Batson.” Id. at 22. This ruling lacked the analysis required, as “’[T]he trial court did not explain how it weighed the totality of the circumstances surrounding the prosecution’s use of peremptory challenges,’ nor did it conduct a comparative analysis between the stricken African-American jurors and the other jurors alleged to have been similarly situated.” Id. at 24-25, quoting Hobbs at 358. Because defendant did not seek review of the trial court’s substantive ruling, the court did not attempt to perform a comparative-juror analysis, instead reversing and remanding the case for “further proceedings consistent with those set out in Hobbs.” Id. at 25. 

Judge Dillon concurred by separate opinion, noting that the State may be heard during the first step of the Batson analysis and that the trial court could still make a ruling on the prima facie showing of discrimination, but that the court here proceeded to step two. 

Judge Stading concurred to the holding in (1) and dissented to the holding in (2) by separate opinion, and would have held that the trial court committed no error as the step one Batson determination was not moot under the circumstances of the case.