Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NC Supreme Court Criminal Decisions, March 14, 2011

The high court issued two criminal decisions this month:

State v. Lane. Direct appeal of capital murder conviction in Wayne County from July 2005.

In 2008, this case was remanded to Superior Court in light of Indiana v. Edwards, on issue of whether Defendant was competent to waive trial counsel-- in that gray area of Edwards where a Defendant is competent enough to stand trial under Dusky, but not enough to represent himself. The trial court held that the defendant was competent to waive trial counsel. The issue was back before the court on that issue and the other original issues raised.

At the trial level, the defendant was evaluated for competency by Dix hospital and was ultimately found competent. His trial counsel notified the court of their intent to file a motion to set aside the death penalty on the basis that the defendant was mentally retarded. This angered the defendant and he fired his attorneys and was allowed to proceed pro se.

His trial began, and due to concerns of the trial judge, the defendant was again sent to Dix for a competency analysis. A hearing was held and he was found competent to stand trial and represent himself, despite his mental disorders (PTSD, anxiety disorders, and other "mental symptoms") and illiteracy (reads at kindergarten level). The judge appointed the attorneys as standby counsel.

Defendant finally reached a trial and, at trial, the defendant requested that his standby counsel represent him. He was convicted on all counts (murder, kidnapping, rape, sex offense, and indecent liberties). At the penalty phase, defendant instructed his counsel to take no part and present no evidence, essentially representing himself. At the close of the sentencing hearing, the jury sentenced him to death.

1st) Trial court did not err in allowing defendant to discharge his trial counsel, as he does not fall in the grey area of borderline competence--defendants who are competent to stand trial but not to represent, as the USSC identified in Edwards. Defendant's waiver of counsel was knowing and voluntary.

2nd) No error in refusing to allow Dr. Wilson to testify about extreme effects of defendant's alcohol withdrawal, where, on voir dire, the doctor stated that he couldn't state whether or not the defendant had these kinds of effects when he made his confession, as such testimony was not relevant to any guilt phase issue.

3rd) Survives proportionality review.

State v. Sargeant. Watauga County. Ordering a new trial in a 1st degree murder case (that resulting in a life without parole sentence) (affirming the court of appeals decision).

1) Trial court erred in excluding, as hearsay evidence, a statement which implicated the state's sole eyewitness as the real perpetrator of the crime. This should have been admitted under the residual hearsay exception.

2) On the issue of partial verdict, the court rules that issue moot (as unlikely to recur).

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