Heard in the Court of Appeals December 12, 2013.
Wake County. No. 09 CRS 19207.
Attorney General Roy Cooper, by Special Deputy Attorney General Robert C. Montgomery, Assistant Attorney General Amy Kunstling Irene, and Assistant Attorney General Daniel P. O'Brien, for the State.
Appellate Defender Staples S. Hughes, by Assistant Appellate Defender Barbara S. Blackman, for defendant-appellant.
Robert N. HUNTER, JR., Judge. Judges STROUD and DILLON concur.
Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 5 March 2012 by Judge Donald W. Stephens in Wake County Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 12 December 2013.
HUNTER, JR., Robert N., Judge.
Jason Lynn Young (" Defendant" ) appeals a jury verdict finding him guilty of first-degree murder of his wife, Michelle Fisher Young (" Michelle" ). Defendant argues that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of the entry of a default judgment in a wrongful death action and a child custody complaint
against Defendant in his subsequent criminal trial. We agree, vacate the judgment, and remand for a new trial.
I. Facts & Procedural History
The Wake County Grand Jury indicted Defendant for first-degree murder on 14 December 2009. Defendant's case was tried in Wake County Superior Court on 31 May 2011 with Judge Donald W. Stephens presiding. On 27 June 2011, a mistrial was declared when the jury deadlocked eight to four to acquit Defendant.
Defendant's retrial began at the 17 January 2012 session of Wake County Superior Court, with Judge Stephens again presiding. On 5 March 2012, the jury found Defendant guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced Defendant to life imprisonment without parole. Notice of appeal was given in open court. The testimony presented at trial tended to show the following facts.
A. State's Evidence
Michelle Young was found at her home by her sister, Meredith Fisher (" Meredith" ), around 1:00 p.m. on 3 November 2006. Meredith found Michelle after Defendant called Meredith, asking her to retrieve some printouts of eBay searches for Coach purses. Defendant was out of town on a business trip and left a voicemail for Meredith stating his plan to purchase these purses as a belated anniversary present. Defendant did not want Michelle to find out beforehand.
Meredith complied with Defendant's requests and entered the Youngs' home through the garage door, which was broken, and then through the unlocked kitchen door to the home's mudroom. Meredith noticed her sister's car was in the garage and that her keys and purse were visible near the kitchen counter. After entering, Meredith called out Michelle's name and heard no response. Meredith heard the Youngs' dog, " Mr. G.," whimpering, but she did not see him. The house was cold.
As Meredith ascended the home's stairs, she saw what she thought was dark red hair dye at the top of the staircase in the bathroom of the Youngs' two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Emily. Meredith first thought that Emily had smeared hair dye around the home and that Michelle would be angry about the mess. When Meredith reached the top of the stairs and looked to the left, she saw Michelle lying on the floor, surrounded by a large amount of blood.
Meredith called 911, and as she did, Meredith said " [Emily] lifted up the covers and just kind of stared at me and I just kind of stared back at her and then she just kind of got on me and clung to me as I called 911." During the call, Emily continually asked for band-aids and said that her mother " has boo-boos everywhere." The 911 operator asked Meredith if Michelle had any personal problems, to which Meredith replied " [u]m not really. You know her and her husband fight a little bit, but nothing too ridiculous." Meredith also told the 911 operator that her " niece is very smart for her age" and that she thought Emily was saying " there was somebody in the house." Paramedics and the Wake County Sheriff's Office responded to Meredith's call.
Emily was not injured and appeared " clean" when Meredith arrived, except for some dried blood on Emily's toenails and on the bottom of her pajama pants. Meredith said she did not clean Emily. Emily was wearing fleece pajamas, was not wearing underpants or footwear, and did not urinate or defecate on herself or the bed. Emily clung to Meredith's hip until they both were taken away by emergency personnel. Later, Meredith called her mother Linda Fisher (" Linda" ) in New York to tell her of Michelle's passing and later told Defendant's mother Pat Young (" Pat" ) of Michelle's death.
Sheriff's officers found Michelle with a large amount of coagulated, dried blood around her body and with blood splattering against the walls of her bedroom. Michelle's body was discolored, cold, and stiff. She was not wearing shoes and was dressed in sweatpants and a zip-up sweatshirt. Blood was observed on the opposite side of the bed from where Meredith found Emily. Defendant's DNA and fingerprints were present in the bedroom, although none of his fingerprints contained blood.
Michelle was lying face-down just outside of a closet labeled " his closet." A child's doll was near Michelle's head. Blood was also found on the exterior of this closet, and inside of the closet door. The only blood found outside of the second floor of the Youngs' home was found on the doorknob leading from the kitchen to the garage, and its DNA markers were consistent with Michelle's DNA. No blood was found in or on Defendant's vehicle, his clothes, or in the hotel room where he stayed on 2 November 2006.
The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy, Dr. Thomas Clark (" Dr. Clark" ), opined that Michelle experienced blunt force trauma to her head and body. The trauma included a broken jaw, skull fracturing, brain hemorrhaging, lacerations, abrasions, and dislodged teeth. Dr. Clark stated that there were likely at least thirty blows delivered to Michelle, and the medical examiner testified that he thought the blows were inflicted by " a heavy blunt object" with a rounded surface that produced crescent-shaped skull fractures. Dr. Clark said the autopsy did not produce evidence of a sexual assault against Michelle. Michelle was approximately twenty weeks pregnant when she passed away.
Small footprints in blood, consistent with a child's footprints, were found around the bedroom and at the top of the stairwell landing. Investigators testified that blood was smeared on the walls at a child's level in Emily's bathroom. Investigators said the blood smearing could indicate that Emily was in her bathroom with the door closed. Investigators did not find blood in the sink or bathtub of either the master bathroom or Emily's bathroom.
Several other pieces of evidence were presented by federal, state, and county investigators. Michael Smith of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Andy Parker of the Wake/Raleigh City and County Bureau of Investigation (" CCBI" ), and Karen Morrow of the State Bureau of Investigation testified at trial. Smith, Parker, and Morrow testified that footwear impressions in blood were made by two distinct shoe types on pillows found near Michelle. These included impressions that corresponded with size 12 Hush Puppy Orbital, Sealy, and Belleville shoes which all had the same outsole design. Smith, Morrow, and Parker also testified that there were additional impressions made by a different shoe type, consistent with a size 10 Air Fit or Franklin athletic shoe. Karen Morrow and Greg Tart of the State Bureau of Investigation testified that Defendant at one time owned size 12 Hush Puppy Orbitals, which were purchased on 4 July 2005. The State never produced shoes matching either of the impressions. The State also never produced a murder weapon.
A jewelry box in the master bedroom had two drawers removed, and DNA testing showed four markers that did not include Defendant or Michelle's DNA. Meredith testified that Michelle " didn't really have a lot of fancy jewelry" except her wedding and engagement rings, and that she " always wore" her wedding and engagement rings. Michelle's wedding and engagement rings were both missing from her body when she was found and the rings were not recovered. Additional unidentified fingerprints were found in the house. Investigators found no signs of forced entry.
Printouts from eBay concerning purses were found on an office printer with three fingerprints; one matched Defendant and two others remain unidentified. Forensic analyst Beth Whitney of the CCBI (" Ms. Whitney" ) also said Internet searches for purses were made between 7:05 p.m. and 7:23 p.m. on 2 November 2006. Ms. Whitney testified that MapQuest inquiries for directions between Raleigh and Clintwood, Virginia, were also made that evening, as well as e-mail logins to Defendant's personal email account. Ms. Whitney also found that, at an undetermined time, Internet searches were made on the Youngs' home computer for " anatomy of a knockout," " head trauma blackout," " head blow knockout," and " head trauma."
i. Evening of 2 November 2006
Michelle's sorority sister and close friend, Ms. Shelly Schaad (" Ms. Schaad" ), arrived at the Youngs' home around 6:30 p.m. on 2 November 2006. Ms. Schaad arrived to have dinner and to watch Grey's Anatomy on television
with Michelle. Ms. Schaad said she was surprised Defendant was still home. Ms. Schaad picked up dinner on the way to the Youngs' house and invited Defendant to eat. Defendant said he planned to stop at the Cracker Barrel in Greensboro to have dinner, drive three hours to Galax to spend the evening, and then drive two hours the next morning to a 10:30 meeting. As Defendant left for the evening, Ms. Schaad asked Defendant if he would return for the N.C. State football game on 4 November 2006. Defendant said it depended on whether his father-in-law, Alan Fisher, would come for the weekend. Defendant expected his father-in-law to visit, and Defendant had spent the afternoon cleaning the yard in anticipation of his arrival. Defendant's father-in-law called and cancelled his visit that evening. After he left, Defendant called the Young residence seven times that evening.
Michelle and Ms. Schaad had dinner, bathed Emily, diapered her, and dressed her in pajamas. Michelle and Ms. Schaad talked about an argument between the Youngs over Defendant's mother-in-law, Linda, staying at their home for the majority of the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Defendant was upset with the length of her potential stay.
Ms. Schaad testified that she had an " eerie feeling" that evening. Ms. Schaad asked Michelle if she was scared to be alone. Ms. Schaad testified that Michelle
proceeded to say, you know, Jason's heard a lot of noises lately around the house, you know, but her thoughts were, you know, if -- and her exact words to me, if someone's going to break in and their intention is to kill you, then that's what they're going to do, and it was very unsettling.
Ms. Schaad said she felt like the two were being watched and asked Michelle to walk her to her vehicle before she left that evening.
ii. Defendant's Location on 2 and 3 November 2006
Defendant purchased gasoline in Raleigh at approximately 7:30 p.m. on 2 November 2006 and then went to a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Greensboro. Defendant called his mother Pat, who lived in Brevard, while at the Raleigh gas station. Defendant paid for his meal at the Cracker Barrel at 9:25 p.m. and checked into a room at the Hampton Inn in Hillsville, Virginia at 10:54 p.m. Data from the keycards used to gain access to the hotel rooms showed that Defendant entered his room at 10:56 p.m. and did not use his keycard to re-enter his hotel room for the remainder of his stay.
Security camera footage tended to show that Defendant wore a light shirt, jeans, and brown slip-on shoes at the Cracker Barrel and upon entering the Hampton Inn. Two pairs of brown slip-on shoes were found in Defendant's vehicle when police later seized it on 3 November 2006.
Defendant was also captured on video at the hotel just before midnight at the front desk and walking down a hallway that lead to stairs and an exit door, wearing what appeared to be a darker colored shirt with a light-colored horizontal stripe across the chest. Defendant was not shown on surveillance footage for the remainder of the evening.
The night-clerk at the Hampton Inn distributed check-out receipts and hung copies of the USA Today on door handles between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. or later. Both the receipt for Defendant's stay as well as a weekend edition of the USA Today were found in Defendant's Ford Explorer on 3 November 2006, when police seized it.
Early in the morning on 3 November 2006, Hampton Inn Clerk Mr. Keith Hicks (" Mr. Hicks" ) noticed that the emergency door on the first floor at the western end of the hotel was propped open with a small red rock. Mr. Hicks removed the rock and shut the door. Immediately next to the door was a glass door that could only be accessed via keycard between 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. A sign next to the door listed the hours the door was locked; at all other times the glass door was unlocked.
When Mr. Hicks returned to the front desk and reviewed the hotel's surveillance cameras, he noticed that the camera was malfunctioning in the same stairwell where the door was left ajar. Mr. Hicks later
determined that the camera was unplugged, and Mr. Hicks asked a maintenance worker, Elmer Goad (" Mr. Goad" ), to plug the camera in again. Mr. Goad testified that if someone were six feet tall, they would be able to easily reach the camera's plug. The last image from the camera was at 11:19:59 p.m. on 2 November 2006, and no images were recorded until 5:50 a.m. on 3 November 2006, when Mr. Goad got a stepladder and plugged the camera in again.
The camera worked properly from 5:50 a.m. until 6:34 a.m., but at 6:35 a.m., the camera was pointed at the ceiling. Mr. Goad put the camera back in position and focused it on the bottom of the stairs at 6:38 a.m. The hotel said the camera was never unplugged previously and that the only other time that camera was tampered with was several years prior, when some guests snuck in and out of the exit door. CCBI investigator Andy Parker performed a fingerprint analysis on the camera and testified that the State did not find Defendant's fingerprints on the security camera. Investigator Eddie McCormick (" Investigator McCormick" ) also testified that tests conducted by the State did not show that any fibers were transferred from the Hampton Inn where Defendant stayed on 2 November 2006 to the Youngs' home at 5108 Birchleaf Drive.
The hotel had no record of when Defendant left on 3 November 2006. The State's first evidence showing his location was from a call he made to his mother Pat around thirty miles from the hotel near Wythville, Virginia at 7:40 a.m. Defendant made several calls to his mother and others while driving to Clintwood, with several lasting ten seconds or less. Investigator McCormick testified it was possible the large number of short calls could be from dropped phone calls, but he also said that " knowing what I know about telephonic investigations," the call frequency reflected a person who was panicked.
Defendant was thirty minutes late to his 10:00 a.m. sales call in Clintwood, Virginia. Defendant purchased gas in Duffield at 12:06 p.m. and then left a voicemail for Meredith.
Detective Richard Spivey of the Wake County Sheriff's Office (" Detective Spivey" ) testified that his deputy drove between Raleigh and Hillsville, Virginia in two hours and twenty-five minutes without traffic. Three gas receipts were found in Defendant's vehicle, one from Raleigh on 2 November 2006, Duffield on 3 November 2006, and Burlington at 8:32 p.m. on 3 November 2006. Officers also canvassed gas stations between Hillsville and Raleigh. Ms. Gracie Calhoun (" Ms. Calhoun" ), who worked at the Four Brothers BP in King, North Carolina, said she saw a man drive to a pump and attempt to pump gas in the early morning hours of 3 November 2006. The State's investigators said that the Four Brothers BP was along the most direct route between Raleigh and Hillsville and was the only gas station open at that particular exit.
Ms. Calhoun was shown a photograph of Defendant's white Ford Explorer on 5 November 2006 and asked if she saw the car on 3 November 2006. When Ms. Calhoun was shown Defendant's photograph, she identified him as the vehicle's driver. Ms. Calhoun was not asked to provide a physical description prior to seeing Defendant's photo, and stated that the Defendant was " just a little bit taller than me," although Ms. Calhoun is five feet tall and Defendant is six-foot-one. Ms. Calhoun stated that she had not seen any news reports about the case when she was asked about the vehicle. Ms. Calhoun said she remembered Defendant specifically because he cursed at her, and that it left an impression because only one other person had ever cursed at her during her tenure at the Four Brothers BP. It is around a forty to forty-five minute drive from the Hillsville Hampton Inn to the Four Brothers BP.
Ms. Calhoun testified that Defendant came into the store and cursed at her because the pumps were not on, threw $20 at her, pumped $15 of gas and drove off without returning for change. Store records showed several gas and in-store purchases between 5:00 a.m. and 5:40 a.m., including a $15 gas purchase at 5:27 a.m. and a $20 gas purchase at 5:36 a.m.
After the first trial concluded, Defendant's counsel learned that Ms. Calhoun had received disability benefits since she was a child. Ms. Calhoun stated that when she was six-years-old, she was hit by a truck. This
accident caused her brain to be dislodged from her skull and to fall onto the street. Doctors reinserted her brain and Ms. Calhoun stated that she has had memory problems her entire life as a result of the accident.
The State presented evidence that a newspaper delivery person passed by the Youngs' home between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. and noticed that the interior, exterior, and driveway lights were on, which she considered unusual at that hour. The delivery person testified that she saw a light colored SUV in front of the home and that a minivan was across the street.
After Defendant arrived and learned from his mother of Michelle's passing, he spoke with Meredith over the phone. Meredith told Defendant to come to her home because the Youngs' home was a crime scene. When speaking to Meredith, he asked about Emily, what had happened, and seemed upset over the phone.
Officers began to question Meredith and friends of the Youngs about possible marital problems. After the questioning, Defendant's friends Josh Dalton and Ryan Schaad suggested he not speak to police until he retained counsel. On counsel's advice, Defendant never answered any questions ...