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State v. Knight

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 9, 2017


         Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 785 S.E.2d 324 (2016), finding no prejudicial error after appeal from a judgment entered on 7 February 2014 by Judge Kendra D. Hill in Superior Court, Wake County. On 9 June 2016, the Supreme Court allowed the State's petition for discretionary review of an additional issue. The case was calendared for argument in the Supreme Court on 14 February 2017, but was determined on the briefs without oral argument pursuant to N.C. R. App. P. 30(d).

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Amy Kunstling Irene, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellee/appellant.

          Craig M. Cooley for defendant-appellant/appellee.

          MARTIN, Chief Justice.

         Defendant Thomas Knight allegedly raped and assaulted T.H., the victim, at her home in October 2012. Wearing only a shirt, T.H. eventually escaped and ran to a neighbor's house to get help. Her neighbor gave her a pair of pants to wear and called the police. Evidence that the police recovered from T.H.'s home was consistent with her account of the events. The police soon apprehended defendant at a nearby gas station. When the police found defendant, he was carrying two cell phones, one of which belonged to T.H.

         The police took defendant to a police station for questioning. Detective Jeff Wenhart began questioning defendant at around 10:30 or 10:45 p.m. that evening. In the video-recorded interrogation, which lasted under forty minutes, defendant acknowledged spending time with T.H. at her home earlier in the evening but vehemently denied having sexual relations with her and denied any wrongdoing.


         Defendant was charged with common law robbery, assault on a female, interfering with emergency communication, second-degree rape, second-degree sexual offense, and first-degree kidnapping. He was tried before a jury, with the Honorable Reuben F. Young presiding. Defendant moved to suppress the custodial statements that he made to Detective Wenhart at the police station, claiming that the State had not proved that he had understood his Miranda rights or that he had explicitly waived them. Judge Young granted defendant's motion and suppressed the statements. At the close of evidence, the trial court dismissed the common law robbery charge and the interfering-with-emergency-communication charge. The jury found defendant guilty of assault on a female but could not reach a unanimous verdict on the other three charges that remained. As a result, the trial court sentenced defendant for his assault-on-a-female conviction and declared a mistrial on the other three charges.

         About six months later, defendant was retried before a new jury, with the Honorable Kendra D. Hill presiding, on those three charges-namely, second-degree rape, second-degree sexual offense, and first-degree kidnapping. At defendant's second trial, defendant again moved to suppress the custodial statements that he made to Detective Wenhart. Judge Hill held a voir dire hearing, heard the arguments of the parties, viewed the video recording of defendant's custodial interrogation, and ruled that defendant's custodial statements were admissible.

         In the findings of fact that supported her ruling, Judge Hill noted that, when Detective Wenhart began to read defendant his Miranda rights and told defendant that he had a right to remain silent, "[d]efendant immediately said[, ] are you arresting me?" Judge Hill also explained that, at the time, defendant "was clearly detained, and yet the reading of the rights triggered in the defendant's mind that this was an arrest, which to the [trial] [c]ourt provides some indication of knowledge" and "understanding about Miranda to some extent." Plus, "[c]lear language was used [by Detective Wenhart] here." "The defendant, " moreover, was "an adult . . . in his 30s at the time of this" interrogation and gave "no indication to the [trial] [c]ourt" that he had "any cognitive problems." In addition, Judge Hill observed that "[d]efendant ha[d] a prior criminal history" and thus had "some knowledge and familiarity with the criminal justice system." Finally, "the discussion prior to the full reading of the rights made it clear that the defendant was seeking information . . . and wanted to provide information with regard to his indication of what had been done here." Judge Hill concluded that the discussion "indicat[ed] a willingness for the defendant to speak to" Detective Wenhart and noted that defendant "actually sa[id] to the officer[, ] I want to be frank with you, I want to explain this to you."

         Based on these findings of fact, Judge Hill found, under the totality of the circumstances, that there was "enough to determine that the defendant understood his Miranda rights" and that, "through his continued discussion[, ] . . . he voluntarily waived those rights in providing a statement to Detective Wenhart." At the close of defendant's second trial, the jury found him guilty of second-degree rape and first-degree kidnapping and not guilty of second-degree sexual offense. Defendant gave oral notice of appeal.

         Before the Court of Appeals, defendant argued, among other things, that Judge Hill erred when she denied defendant's motion to suppress his custodial statements. The Court of Appeals unanimously agreed that Judge Hill had erred because the State had not shown that defendant actually understood his Miranda rights State v Knight, __NC App.__, __, __, 785 S.E.2d 324, 333-36, 338-40 (2016); Id. at__, 785 S.E.2d at 340 (Stroud, J, concurring in part and dissenting in part) The Court of Appeals therefore concluded that defendant had not knowingly and intelligently waived his rights Id. at__, 785 S.E.2d at 336 (majority opinion); Id. at__, 785 S.E.2d at 340 (Stroud, J, concurring in part and dissenting in part). A majority of the panel nevertheless held that Judge Hill's purported error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and thus found no prejudicial error in defendant's second trial. Id. at__, __, 785 S.E.2d at 336-38, 340 (majority opinion). A dissenting judge disagreed and would have granted defendant a new trial. Id. at__, 785 S.E.2d at 340-41 (Stroud, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

         Defendant appealed to this Court based on the dissenting opinion. The State filed a petition for discretionary review of an additional issue, namely, whether the Court of Appeals' ruling that defendant did not understand his Miranda rights and therefore did not knowingly and intelligently waive them was correct. We allowed the petition. By consent of the parties, the case was submitted for decision on the briefs under Rule 30(d) of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure.


         The Fifth Amendment, which applies to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, see Griffin v. California, 380 U.S. 609, 611, 615 (1965), provides that no person "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, " U.S. Const. amend. V. To protect this right, the Supreme Court of the United States has formulated a set of prophylactic warnings that criminal suspects must receive for any custodial statements that they make to be admissible in court. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 478-79 (1966). The substance of those warnings has not changed over the last fifty years. See Berghuis v. Thompkins, 560 U.S. 370, 380 (2010).

         A defendant may, however, waive his Miranda rights as long as he waives them voluntarily, knowingly, and intelligently. Miranda, 384 U.S. at 444; State v. Simpson, 314 N.C. 359, 367, 334 S.E.2d 53, 59 (1985). A court's waiver inquiry has two distinct dimensions. Moran v. Burbine, 475 U.S. 412, 421 (1986). First, a court must determine whether the waiver was "voluntary in the sense that it was the product of a free and deliberate choice rather than intimidation, coercion, or deception." Id. Second, a court must determine that the waiver was knowing and intelligent-that is, that it was "made with a full awareness of both the nature of the right being abandoned and the consequences of the decision to abandon it." Id.

         A waiver can be either express or implied. See State v. Connley, 297 N.C. 584, 586, 256 S.E.2d 234, 235-36 (order on remand) (citing North Carolina v. Butler, 441 U.S. 369, 373 (1979)), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 954 (1979). "An express written or oral statement of waiver of the right to remain silent or of the right to counsel is usually strong proof of the validity of that waiver, but is not inevitably either necessary or sufficient to establish waiver." Id. at 586, 256 S.E.2d at 235 (quoting Butler, 441 U.S. at 373). A court may properly conclude that a defendant has waived his Miranda rights only if the totality of the circumstances surrounding the defendant's interrogation show both that he adequately understands them and that he was not coerced into waiving them. Moran, 475 U.S. at 421; see also State v. Fincher, 309 N.C. 1, 19, 305 S.E.2d 685, 697 (1983). Whether a defendant has knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights therefore "depends on the specific facts and circumstances of each case, including the [defendant's] background, experience, and conduct." Simpson, 314 N.C. at 367, 334 S.E.2d at 59 (citing, inter alia, Edwards v. Arizona, 451 U.S. 477, 482 (1981)). And although the Supreme Court has stated that the State bears a "heavy burden" in proving waiver, Miranda, 384 U.S. at 475, the Court later clarified that "the State need prove waiver only by a preponderance of the evidence, " Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 168 (1986), cited in Berghuis, 560 U.S. at 384.

         More recently, in Berghuis v. Thompkins, the Supreme Court addressed whether a defendant who was "[l]argely silent" during a nearly three hour custodial interrogation had invoked his Miranda rights, and also addressed whether he had waived them. See 560 U.S. at 375 (brackets in original; internal quotation marks omitted); id. at 380-87. After receiving his Miranda warnings, Van Chester Thompkins, the defendant in Berghuis, gave only "a few limited verbal responses" to the police officers' questions, "such as 'yeah, ' 'no, ' or 'I don't know.' " Id. at 375. "About 2 hours and 45 minutes into the interrogation, " one of the interrogating police officers asked Thompkins if he believed in God. Id. at 376. He replied, "Yes, " and "his eyes welled up with tears." Id. (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted). The officer asked Thompkins if he prayed to God, and he replied, "Yes." Id. The officer then asked him if he prayed to God "to forgive [him] for shooting that boy down, " and he "answered 'Yes' and looked away." Id.

         The Court held that Thompkins had not invoked his right to remain silent under Miranda. Id. at 382. It ruled that a suspect must invoke his right to remain silent unambiguously, and that Thompkins had not done so. See id. at 381-82 (citing, inter alia, Davis v. United States, 512 U.S. 452, 458-62 (1994)). The Court also held that Thompkins waived his right to remain silent. Id. at 385, 387. It found that he had understood his Miranda rights, that he ...

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