State v. Woodley, 2022-NCCOA-746, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Nov. 15, 2022)

In this Pasquotank County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing the trial court erred in several matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic and by admitting irrelevant and hearsay testimony. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In May of 2018, defendant was in an altercation in Elizabeth City; defendant pulled a gun as the victim ran away and shot him several times in the back. The matter reached trial on January 11, 2021, after delays related to COVID-19. On the first day of trial, defense counsel made a motion to continue, arguing that she did not feel safe proceeding due to COVID-19. The trial court denied the motion to continue. The trial was subject to capacity limitations and modified jury selection procedures to limit the proximity of those in the courtroom, leading to additional issues on appeal.

Defendant first argued that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the case, pointing to the emergency orders from then-Chief Justice Beasley issued on December 14, 2020, forbidding jury trials for the next thirty days unless a jury was already empaneled. The Court of Appeals noted that Chief Justice Newby was sworn in on January 1, 2021, and a commission to the superior court hearing the matter was issued on January 5. The new chief justice also issued an order effective January 14, 2021, allowing the emergency directives in question to expire. The court found that the emergency order did not remove the superior court’s jurisdiction, and “[t]he 5 January 2021 AOC commission for this session and the 13 January 2021 order from Chief Justice Newby effectively repudiated and superseded the 14 December 2020 order.” Slip Op. at 9.

Moving to defendant’s trial-related issues, the court first considered denial of the motion to continue, explaining that defendant could not show prejudice justifying a new trial because defense counsel “was legally prepared to try the case, but was solely worried about potential COVID-19 risks,” and defendant made “no showing of any deficient representation throughout trial.” Id. at 14. The court next considered the argument that defense counsel should have been barred under Emergency Directive 2 from the December 14, 2020, emergency orders, as this order forbid persons likely exposed to COVID-19 from entering the courthouse. Rejecting this argument, the court noted that defense counsel did not identify her likely exposure to the clerk or mention it in her motion to continue, meaning she never presented the issue to the court for consideration prior to her motion. Examining defendant’s argument that the courtroom closure for capacity reasons violated his right to a public trial, the court explained that he failed to preserve this issue on appeal and declined to apply Rule of Appellate Procedure 2 to revive it. Finally, the court rejected defendant’s challenge to jury selection, holding:

While the jury selection procedure the court utilized here may have varied the express requirement of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1214(d) requiring the State to pass a full panel of twelve prospective jurors . . . [d]efendant was not forced to accept any undesirable juror as a result of the passing of less than twelve prospective jurors during jury selection procedure under these circumstances. Id. at 21-22, citing State v. Lawrence, 365 N.C. 506 (2012).

The court last turned to defendant’s challenge to the admission of Exhibits 54, 55, and 57. Exhibits 54 and 55 were Facebook messages, and Exhibit 57 was documentation of a handgun purchase. Noting the exhibits “were probative to issues of [d]efendant’s guilt, [d]efendant’s opportunity to acquire a weapon, and [d]efendant’s possible motive for the killing,” the court rejected defendant’s challenge to relevancy. Slip Op. at 25. The court then looked at the admission of Exhibit 54, a Facebook message exchange between defendant’s sister and the victim’s sister describing a dispute between defendant and the victim over payment for a gun. The court found no error in admitting this exchange, and noted that North Carolina law “permits declarations of one person to be admitted into evidence for the purpose of showing that another person has knowledge or notice of the declared facts and to demonstrate his particular state of mind.” Id. at 27, quoting State v. Swift, 290 N.C. 383, 393 (1976).