Monday, August 31, 2009

Supreme Court Update (August 28, 2009)

State v. Lopez. Prosecutor's argument to jury on effect of jury finding an aggravating factor was inaccurate and misleading. After a DWI accident, Defendant was charged with 2nd degree murder. The jury was given a verdict sheet with options for 2nd degree murder, involuntary manslaughter, and misdemeanor death by vehicle. The jury found the defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter and other lesser charges.

During sentencing, the State asked the jury to find the agravating factor that defendant "knowingly created a great risk of death." The prosecutor wrote up the sentencing grid on the chalkboard, with the presumptive range and the aggravated range. The Court found this was error because it was misleading (because those were the presumptive minimums, not the presumptive sentence) and the defendant's sentencing range could not have been determined at that time. Further, it informed the jury about some of his charges merging and his lightened sentence for this reason. The court abused its discretion in failing to grant defendant's objection. However, such error was harmless.

While finding it misleading, the Court did find that the calculation of aggravating factors was relevant to the jury's understanding of the presence of an aggravating factors.

Justice Brady, along with Justice Timmons-Goodson, dissented, saying that calculation of aggravating factors was not relevant.

State v. Wilson. Affirming decision of Court of Appeals that judge's instructions to a single juror violated defendant's right ot a unanimous jury verdict. New trial ordered.

Justice Brady, along with Justice Newby, dissented.

Britt v. State. Finding that the 2004 amendment making it unlawful for any felon to purchase, own, possess, or control any firearm, without an in-the-home exception, is unconstitutional as applied to Plaintiff. Plaintiff was convicted of felony drug possession in 1979.

The Court ruled that this amendment violated Article I, Section 30 of the NC Constitution that: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." This provision requires regulations of firearms to be "reasonable" and bear relation to the "preservation of public peace and safety."

The Court found that, because his prior conviction did not involve violence, that he had lawfully possessed firearms from 1987 to 2004, and that he surrendered his arms after consulting with the Sheriff in 2004, he is not in the class of citizens who pose a threat to public safety.

"In particular, it is unreasonable to assert that a nonviolent citizen who has responsibly, safely, and legally owned and used firearms for seventeen years is in reality so dangerous that any possession at all of a firearm would pose a significant threat to public safety."

Justice Parker dissents.

State v. Locklear. Death case. New sentencing ordered in capital murder case.

Guilt Issues. No error under 404(b) for admitting evidence of defendant's prior murder in a murder prosecution, where both victims were female, an argument arose in both instances during sexual intercourse, that both were beaten with hands and a two-by-four, in both instances efforts were made to dispose the body, and the murders were 3 1/2 years apart. 404(b) evidence that defendant was a felon was also admissible as motive, where, under state's theory, the motive for killing was to prevent reporting a rape and defendant's belief that police would not believe him because of his status as a felon.

Court erred in admitting opinions of non-testifying pathologist and dentist under the Sixth Amendment. Found such admission as harmless. Other issues as well.

Sentencing. Ordered new sentencing hearing, because judge refused to instruct the jury that finding the defendant mentally retarded would result in a sentence of life without parole.

Martin dissents.

State v. Wilkerson. Death case. No error found.

State v. Jacobs & McMillan. Vacated and remanded for harmless error analysis.

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