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State v. Spruiell

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

April 4, 2017

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
QUINTIS TRAVON SPRUIELL

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 30 November 2016.

         Appeal by the State from order entered 2 December 2015 by Judge C. Winston Gilchrist in Lee County Superior Court Nos. 05 CRS 54493, 54506, 08 CRS 261.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Senior Deputy Attorney General Robert C. Montgomery, for the State.

          Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender Amanda S. Zimmer, for defendant-appellee.

          DAVIS, Judge.

         Quintis Travon Spruiell ("Defendant") was convicted of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule after he fired a single shot into a parked car at close range, striking and killing the victim. This case presents the issue of whether Defendant received ineffective assistance of counsel on direct appeal when his appellate counsel failed to argue that it was error to instruct the jury on felony murder based upon the underlying felony of discharging a weapon into occupied property given that Defendant only fired a single shot at a single victim. The State appeals from the trial court's order granting Defendant's motion for appropriate relief ("MAR") and vacating his convictions for first-degree murder and discharging a weapon into occupied property. Because we conclude that Defendant was not prejudiced by his counsel's failure to raise this argument, we reverse.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         On the evening of 1 November 2005, Jose Lopez drove Ricardo Sanchez to a car wash in Sanford, North Carolina where Sanchez planned to complete a drug transaction with Defendant. When they arrived and parked Lopez's Ford Explorer, Lopez remained in the driver's seat while Sanchez sat in the rear passenger side seat with the window rolled down.

         After Sanchez called Defendant over to the vehicle, Defendant and Shawn Hooker approached the Explorer from the passenger side. Defendant and Sanchez proceeded to argue about "money and about drugs" for several seconds. Defendant then aimed a revolver at Sanchez and fired one shot through the open rear passenger side window, striking him in the stomach. Defendant was so close to Sanchez when he fired the shot that his gun "was almost touching [Sanchez's] stomach."

         Lopez then started to drive away as Sanchez fired several shots at Defendant from the backseat of the moving vehicle, striking Defendant twice. Lopez drove Sanchez to a local hospital where he ultimately died from his gunshot wound.

         On 14 November 2005, Defendant was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, discharging a weapon into occupied property, and possession of a firearm by a felon. At trial, defense counsel objected to instructing the jury on the theory of felony murder based upon the predicate offense of discharging a weapon into occupied property, but the objection was overruled.

         The jury found Defendant guilty of first-degree murder based upon the felony murder rule and also convicted him of discharging a weapon into occupied property and possession of a firearm by a felon.[1] Defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for the murder conviction and to a consecutive sentence of 15 to 18 months imprisonment for the possession of a firearm by a felon conviction. His conviction for discharging a weapon into occupied property was arrested.

         On direct appeal to this Court, Defendant's appellate counsel asserted several arguments but did not raise the issue of whether instructing the jury on felony murder based on these facts had constituted error. On 19 May 2009, this Court issued an opinion upholding Defendant's convictions. State v. Spruiell, 197 N.C.App. 232, 676 S.E.2d 669, 2009 WL 1383399 (2009) (unpublished), disc. review denied, 363 N.C. 588, 684 S.E.2d 38 (2009).

         On 12 June 2012, Defendant filed an MAR in which he primarily argued that his appellate counsel had rendered ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to challenge on direct appeal the felony murder instruction. Specifically, Defendant argued in his MAR that - based on the specific facts of the underlying crime - the offense of discharging a weapon into occupied property could not legally constitute the predicate felony upon which to base his felony murder conviction. Defendant filed subsequent amendments to his MAR on 13 September 2013 and 31 October 2014.

         A hearing on Defendant's MAR was held before the Honorable C. Winston Gilchrist on 16 December 2013. On 2 December 2015, Judge Gilchrist issued an order (the "MAR Order") granting Defendant's motion. In the MAR Order, Judge Gilchrist made the following pertinent findings of fact:

14. [Defendant's appellate counsel] did not have any strategic reason for not arguing to the Court of Appeals that the facts of Defendant's case did not support submission to the jury of first degree murder in perpetration of the felony of shooting into an occupied vehicle.
15. Published precedents of the courts of North Carolina supporting reversal of Defendant's conviction for felony murder existed at the time Defendant's case was appealed, briefed and decided.
16. Reasonable counsel would have known of the precedents supporting Defendant's argument that felony murder based on discharging a weapon into an occupied vehicle was not properly submitted to the jury, or would have become aware of these authorities in the course of reasonable representation of Defendant on appeal.
17. Appellate counsel should have been aware of the need to challenge the trial court's submission of felony murder, given that the Defendant was not convicted of first degree murder on any theory except murder in perpetration of discharging a weapon into occupied property.

         After setting forth a detailed legal analysis articulating his reasoning, Judge Gilchrist made the following pertinent conclusions of law:

4. Counsel on direct appeal should have argued that the trial court erred in submitting felony murder in perpetration of shooting into an occupied vehicle to the jury. In not so contending, appellate counsel's representation was not objectively reasonable.
5. Had Defendant's appellate counsel raised the issue of felony murder, there is a reasonable probability that Defendant's conviction for first degree murder - which was based solely on felony murder in perpetration of discharging a weapon into occupied property - would have been reversed on direct appeal. Counsel's performance undermines confidence in the outcome of this case. The performance of appellate counsel in fact prejudiced the defendant.
6. Defendant Spruiell has met his burden of proving the ineffective assistance of counsel. . . . [2]

         Based upon these findings and conclusions, Judge Gilchrist vacated Defendant's convictions for first-degree murder and for discharging a weapon into occupied property and ordered that Defendant receive a new trial on these charges. On 12 January 2016, the State filed a petition for writ of ...


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