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State v. Salentine

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

October 21, 2014


Argued September 10, 2014.

Page 801

Johnston County. Nos. 10 CRS 3725, 53948.

Attorney General Roy Cooper, by Assistant Attorney General Amy Kunstling Irene, for the State.

David L. Neal for Defendant.

Mr. Staples S. Hughes, Primary Attorney, Appellate Defender, OFFICE OF THE APPELLATE DEFENDER, Durham, NC, for Defendant-Appellant.

STEPHENS, Judge. Judges CALABRIA and ELMORE concur.


Page 802


Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 25 October 2012 by Judge William R. Bell in Johnston County Superior Court.

Defendant Matthew Hagert Salentine was convicted in Johnston County Superior Court of first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, and robbery with a dangerous weapon, and was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the first-degree murder conviction, with judgment arrested on the other two charges. Defendant appeals from the trial court's order denying his motion for a mistrial based on allegations of juror misconduct, contending that the trial court erred in failing to conduct a further inquiry after removing the juror in question, and in overruling Defendant's objections to the State's closing argument. After careful review, we hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying Defendant's motion for a mistrial, limiting the scope of its juror misconduct inquiry, or overruling Defendant's objections to the State's closing argument.

Facts and Procedural History

The evidence at trial showed that early on the morning of 23 June 2010, Defendant broke into the home of 74-year-old Smithfield resident Patricia Warren Stevens. Defendant later admitted that he intended to steal money and valuables in order to purchase crack cocaine, and that his neighbor, Mrs. Stevens, seemed like an " easy" target because he knew she had been living alone since her dog died several months previously. Contrary to Defendant's expectations, Mrs. Stevens put up a fight and began screaming when she caught him rummaging through her purse. Frightened by the prospect of being recognized, Defendant struck Mrs. Stevens at least thirty-three times with a tire iron, including at least eight blows to her head. When he realized Mrs. Stevens was dead, Defendant attempted to conceal her body by rolling it up in a carpet and moving furniture around. He then continued to search the home for additional items to steal, ultimately leaving with Mrs. Stevens's Visa credit card, several boxes of her checks, and a pillowcase stuffed with jewelry. Defendant was arrested two days later on 25 June 2010 as he sat in his truck after attempting to deposit into his bank account over $2,000 in checks made payable to him and purportedly signed by Mrs. Stevens. Defendant confessed to the killing later that afternoon during an interview with SBI agents. Subsequent DNA testing revealed that blood found on checkbooks and flip-flops seized from Defendant's vehicle and a tire iron found near the back door of his apartment matched Mrs. Stevens's DNA profile.

Defendant was tried capitally and pled not guilty, arguing diminished capacity and voluntary intoxication as his defense to the charge of premeditated and deliberate first-degree murder. Although he admitted killing Mrs. Stevens after breaking into her house, Defendant contended that he could not have formed the requisite intent to commit the offense due to a combination of crack cocaine addiction, alcohol abuse, and bipolar disorder. During his SBI interview, Defendant claimed he " fell off the wagon" after nearly five years of being sober and admitted to consuming nearly $10,000 worth of crack cocaine in the weeks preceding Mrs. Stevens's murder, financing his binge with an inheritance from the estate of his grandmother. In addition to being strung-out on crack cocaine, Defendant also consumed a fifth of vodka and some beers shortly before breaking into Mrs. Stevens's home. At trial, mental health experts for the State and the defense diagnosed Defendant with cocaine dependence. Defendant's experts testified that he also suffered from bipolar disorder, that his substance abuse represented a misguided attempt to self-medicate his depression, and that it would be impossible for a person to think or act rationally after consuming

Page 803

so much crack cocaine and alcohol. The State's expert testified that although cocaine can affect one's judgment, it does not completely overwhelm the capacity to reason. He pointed to Defendant's decision to break into Mrs. Stevens's home to obtain money to get more crack and Defendant's actions designed to avoid detection in support of his conclusion that at the time of the offense, Defendant was able to perform intentional acts and make rational decisions. Moreover, the State's expert disputed the bipolar diagnosis, noting that although prolonged cocaine use can cause what appear to be symptoms of mental disorder, Defendant exhibited a clear pattern of functional, stable behavior when not using drugs, thus making a personality disorder with antisocial features the more appropriate diagnosis. Nonetheless, in light of Defendant's diminished capacity defense, the trial court included an instruction on second-degree murder as a lesser-included offense in its charge to the jury.

On 25 October 2012, after deliberating eleven hours over the course of three days, the jury found Defendant guilty of first-degree murder based on theories of malice, premeditation and deliberation, and felony murder. On 2 November 2012, prior to the conclusion of Defendant's capital sentencing hearing, the trial court received a letter from Jeffrey Saunders, a Florida attorney whose brother-in-law, Brian Scott Lloyd, was a forty-eight-year-old long-haul truck driver who served on Defendant's jury. In his letter, Mr. Saunders informed the court:

During deliberations, [Lloyd] contacted my wife complaining about one of the female jurors, because she would not agree to find the Defendant guilty. He further informed my wife that the same juror failed to disclose during voir dire that her brother was addicted to drugs. He also stated to my wife that he went online and found out certain information about the Defendant. I informed my wife to tell her brother that he was prohibited from speaking to her or anyone else regarding the case, and he must comply with the Court's instructions. Thereafter, he called my wife on another day and told her that he and the other jurors did not know what the term " malice" meant and asked her to ask me to explain the same. I refused to provide any information to my wife and I never spoke to her brother about the case.

Upon learning of these allegations of juror misconduct, the trial court informed both parties that it intended to remove Lloyd from the jury and that it was going to make an inquiry of him. Defendant's counsel noted that Lloyd had been seen smoking cigarettes during breaks with two other jurors and stated that inquiry of them also seemed appropriate. Defendant also moved for a mistrial, which the trial court denied, explaining that even if a juror had violated the court's rules, the ultimate inquiry was whether that violation was prejudicial to Defendant.

During the inquiry that followed, Lloyd confirmed that he had spoken to his sister after the jury retired to its deliberations, but could not recall the precise date of their conversation. Lloyd initially denied discussing any details about the case with his sister, but eventually acknowledged he had shared with her his frustrations with another juror, explaining, " I told her I had a rough day, we was [sic] deliberating the case. It was getting heated in there basically. That's all I said. No details." When the trial court confronted Lloyd with the Saunders letter, he eventually confirmed that he had told his sister the jury had been at an 11-to-1 standoff, and that the hold-out juror was a female whose brother was addicted to drugs and was ...

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