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State v. Smith

February 06, 1998

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
JAMIE LAMONT SMITH



Appeal of right pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-27(a) from a judgment imposing a sentence of death entered by Downs, J., at the 22 April 1996 Criminal Session of Superior Court, Buncombe County, upon a jury verdict finding defendant guilty of first-degree murder. Defendant's motion to bypass the Court of Appeals as to additional judgments imposed for first-degree arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree arson, two counts of attempted first-degree murder, misdemeanor larceny, and credit card fraud was allowed 17 July 1997. Heard in the Supreme Court 15 December 1997.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Whichard, Justice.

On 1 May 1995 the Buncombe County Grand Jury indicted defendant Jamie Lamont Smith for the attempted first-degree murder of and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury on Erin Conklin, conspiracy to commit first-degree arson, first-degree murder of David Cotton, attempted first-degree murder of Alison Kafer, first-degree arson, misdemeanor larceny, and misdemeanor financial transaction card fraud. Defendant was tried capitally at the 22 April 1996 Criminal Session of Superior Court, Buncombe County. He presented no evidence during the guilt/innocence phase of the trial. The jury found defendant guilty of all charges.

After a capital sentencing proceeding, the jury found the existence of five aggravating circumstances and seven mitigating circumstances and recommended a sentence of death for the first-degree murder of David Cotton. The trial court imposed the death sentence for this murder and further imposed consecutive sentences of imprisonment for defendant's other convictions. It arrested judgment on the conviction for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury on Erin Conklin. For the reasons set forth herein, we conclude that defendant received a fair trial, free from prejudicial error, and that the sentence of death is not disproportionate.

The State's evidence tended to show the following. In December 1994 defendant stole mail from Grace Apartments in Asheville, North Carolina, and acquired Pamela Acheson's Sears credit card number from a Sears credit card bill in the stolen mail. Defendant used the credit card number to purchase clothes valued at $268.98 from a Sears catalog on 19 December 1994.

Early in the morning on 21 December 1994, defendant began to worry that the police could connect him to his mail theft. Defendant and a companion decided to destroy the evidence of the theft by setting fire to Grace Apartments. They purchased kerosene from the Hot Spot convenience store, put it in an antifreeze jug, and went to Grace Apartments sometime around 3:00 a.m. There, defendant poured half of the jug of kerosene along the hallway in front of Pamela Acheson's apartment. Defendant failed in his attempt to light this kerosene. He then splashed more kerosene up the stairs toward the second floor. Defendant laid the kerosene jug on the floor and lit it as he left the apartment complex. As defendant and his companion drove away, they could see fire raging in the building.

The fire spread rapidly and caused significant consequences. David Cotton died in his second floor apartment from smoke inhalation. Erin Conklin suffered severe burns to her hands and arms when the fire reached her as she hung out her window. She also suffered a broken neck when she fell from her window after her burning hands could no longer cling to the window ledge. Alison Kafer suffered severe burns over seventy percent of her body as well as severe inhalation injury to her lungs from breathing smoke.

Defendant confessed to setting the fire and to setting two other fires in apartment complexes. The State presented evidence of the additional fires during defendant's sentencing proceeding.

In defendant's first assignment of error, he argues that the trial court erred in refusing to allow him to inquire, during jury selection, into the prospective jurors' attitudes and beliefs about parole. Defendant asserts that empirical evidence shows that jurors often do not believe that a defendant who is sentenced to life imprisonment will actually spend the rest of his or her life incarcerated. Defendant points to the opinions of this Court in State v. Robinson, 336 N.C. 78, 443 S.E.2d 306 (1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1089, 130 L. Ed. 2d 650 (1995), and State v. Quesinberry, 325 N.C. 125, 381 S.E.2d 681 (1989), sentence vacated on other grounds, 494 U.S. 1022, 108 L. Ed. 2d 603 (1990), to support this assertion. In both Robinson and Quesinberry, the defendants collaterally attacked their death sentences with juror affidavits that revealed the jurors' conceptions of parole eligibility for defendants sentenced to life imprisonment. At least one juror in Robinson said she believed the defendant would be released in five to ten years if sentenced to life. Robinson, 336 N.C. at 124, 443 S.E.2d at 329. Jurors in Quesinberry similarly believed that the defendant might be paroled in ten years if given a life sentence. Quesinberry, 325 N.C. at 132, 381 S.E.2d at 686.

Here, defendant was sentenced under our current capital sentencing scheme in which the sentencing alternative to the death penalty is life in prison without parole. Under this scheme the trial court is statutorily required to "instruct the jury . . . that a sentence of life imprisonment means a sentence of life without parole." N.C.G.S. § 15A- 2002 (1997). The trial court did instruct the jurors that "if you recommend a sentence of life imprisonment, the Court will impose a sentence of life imprisonment without parole." Defendant's trial counsel argued to the jury: e're not kidding you about life in prison and life without parole. . . . That's what this law says. That's what the eneral ssembly says life without parole means, and that's what his Honor is going to tell you life in prison is, life without parole.

The jury thus was properly informed of the law regarding parole eligibility for defendants sentenced to life imprisonment.

The jurors in Robinson and Quesinberry did not receive such an instruction because they were sentenced under our previous capital sentencing scheme in which a defendant sentenced to life was eligible for parole consideration after twenty years. See N.C.G.S. § 15A- 1371(a1) (1983) (repealed by Act of Mar. 23, 1994, ch. 21, sec. 3, 1994 N.C. Sess. Laws 59, 60). In the absence of an instruction regarding parole ineligibility, such as the one given in this case, it is to be expected that "ost jurors, through their own experience and common knowledge, know that a life sentence does not necessarily mean that the defendant will remain in prison for the rest of his life." Quesinberry, 325 N.C. at 135-36, 381 S.E.2d at 688. Once the jury has been instructed that life imprisonment means life without parole, however, we presume that the jury listens closely to the instruction, strives to understand and follow it, and does not believe the trial court is misinforming it as to the law. State v. Neal, 346 N.C. 608, 618, 487 S.E.2d 734, 740 (1997).

We have held that a trial court does not err by refusing to allow voir dire concerning prospective jurors' conceptions of the parole eligibility of a defendant serving a life sentence. See State v. Chandler, 342 N.C. 742, 749, 467 S.E.2d 636, 640, cert. denied, --- U.S. ---, 136 L. Ed. 2d 133 (1996); State v. Skipper, 337 N.C. 1, 24, 446 S.E.2d 252, 264 (1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1134, 130 L. Ed. 2d 895 (1995). This issue was recently decided contrary to defendant's position in Neal, a case involving our current capital sentencing scheme under which defendant here was sentenced. Neal, 346 N.C. at 617-18, 487 S.E.2d at 739-40. We find no reason to revisit our prior holdings on this issue. This assignment of error is overruled.

Defendant next argues that the trial court erred by ordering disclosure of defendant's medical records from jail. He contends this order violated his physician-patient privilege.

This privilege has no common law predecessor; it is entirely a creature of statute. State v. Martin, 182 N.C. 846, 849, 109 S.E. 74, 76 (1921). The governing statute provides, in pertinent part:

No person, duly authorized to practice physic or surgery, shall be required to disclose any information which he may have acquired in attending a patient in a professional character, and which information was necessary to enable him to prescribe for such patient as a physician . . . . Confidential information obtained in medical records shall be furnished only on the authorization of the patient . . . . Any resident or presiding Judge . . . may . . . compel disclosure if in his disclosure is necessary to a proper administration of Justice.

N.C.G.S. § 8-53 (1986) (emphasis added). The decision that disclosure is necessary to a proper administration of Justice "is one made in the discretion of the trial Judge, and the defendant must show an abuse of discretion in order to successfully challenge the ruling." State v. Drdak, 330 N.C. 587, 592, 411 S.E.2d 604, 607 (1992). "A trial court may be reversed for an abuse of discretion only upon a showing that its ruling was so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision." State v. Wilson, 313 N.C. 516, 538, 330 S.E.2d 450, 465 (1985).

Defendant does not argue that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering the medical records disclosed but rather that it failed to specifically find that disclosure was necessary to a proper administration of Justice. N.C.G.S. § 8-53 does not require such an explicit finding. The finding is implicit in the admission of the evidence.

Defendant sought to suppress statements he made to the police while in jail by arguing that he was suffering from controlled substance withdrawal symptoms and would therefore have been in no condition mentally to give statements to the police. Defendant thus placed at issue his state of mind during the time he was in jail, and the State properly sought to rebut that evidence with his medical records from jail. Defendant makes no argument, and we perceive no reason to believe, that the trial court abused its discretion in ordering the medical records disclosed. This assignment of error is overruled.

Defendant next argues the trial court erred by denying his challenge to the State's peremptory strike of one black prospective juror. Defendant argued to the trial court that the strike was racially motivated, in violation of the equal protection principles recognized in Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 90 L. Ed. 2d 69 (1986). The trial court ruled that defendant had not made the requisite ...


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