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State v. Madonna

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

October 17, 2017


         Heard in the Court of Appeals 10 August 2017.

         Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 28 September 2015 by Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr., in Wake County No. 13CRS214536 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Sandra Wallace-Smith, for the State.

          George B. Currin for the Defendant.

          DILLON, JUDGE.

         Joanna Roberta Madonna ("Defendant") appeals from judgment entered upon a jury verdict finding her guilty of first-degree murder.

         I. Background

         Defendant and Jose Perez ("Mr. Perez") met in 2008 and were married in 2009. In June 2013, Mr. Perez was killed during an altercation with Defendant. At trial, Defendant proceeded on a theory of self-defense.

         Mr. Perez and Defendant were the only individuals at the scene of the altercation. Because Mr. Perez did not live to tell his version of events, Defendant's account of the altercation was the only direct evidence available at trial. Defendant testified to her version of events as follows: While driving in a car with Mr. Perez, Defendant told Mr. Perez that she wanted a divorce. Mr. Perez responded by saying that he would kill himself if she left him. Mr. Perez then clutched his chest, claimed that he was going to have a heart attack, and asked Defendant to pull over. After Defendant pulled the car over, she got out of the car to help Mr. Perez, but before she was able to reach the passenger door of the car, she heard a gunshot. Mr. Perez pointed the gun at Defendant and himself, and when Defendant attempted to take the gun from Mr. Perez, it went off and shot him in the face. Defendant dropped the gun, got back in the car, and began driving toward the VA hospital. Mr. Perez again started clutching his chest and asking Defendant to pull over. When she again got out of the car to check on him, Mr. Perez jumped out of the car and knocked Defendant over, crushing her with his body weight. Defendant became concerned that Mr. Perez was going to choke her to death. Defendant saw a knife on the ground and "started swinging at [Mr. Perez]" until he was no longer holding her down. Defendant testified that at that point, she thought Mr. Perez would still be able to get up, so Defendant threw the knife in the woods, removed Mr. Perez's shoes so he could not chase her, and left the scene.

         The State presented considerable circumstantial evidence which tended to contradict Defendant's version of events. Following the trial, the jury convicted Defendant of first-degree murder. Defendant timely appealed.

         II. Analysis

         On appeal, Defendant contends that the trial court erred in (1) denying her motions to dismiss, (2) denying her motion for mistrial and failing to intervene ex mero motu where the prosecutor made grossly improper remarks during closing argument, and (3) allowing inadmissible and prejudicial witness testimony. We address each argument in turn.

         A. Motions to Dismiss

         Defendant first argues that the trial court erred in denying her motions to dismiss at the close of the State's evidence and the close of all evidence. On appeal, Defendant contends that (1) the State failed to present substantial evidence of premeditation and deliberation, and (2) the State failed to present substantial evidence from which the jury could reasonably conclude that Defendant did not act in self-defense.

         We review the trial court's denial of a motion to dismiss for insufficiency of the evidence de novo. State v. Barnett, 368 N.C. 710, 713, 782 S.E.2d 885, 888 (2016).

When considering a motion to dismiss for insufficiency of evidence, the court is concerned only with the legal sufficiency of the evidence to support a verdict, not its weight, which is a matter for the jury. The evidence must be considered in the light most favorable to the state; all contradictions and discrepancies therein must be resolved in the state's favor; and the state must be given the benefit of every reasonable inference to be drawn in its favor from the evidence. There must be substantial evidence of all elements of the crime charged, and that the defendant was the perpetrator of the crime.

Id. (citations omitted). Substantial evidence is "relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as sufficient to support a conclusion." State v. Allen, 346 N.C. 731, 739, 488 S.E.2d 188, 192 (1997).

         1. Premeditation and Deliberation

         To establish the offense of first-degree murder, the State must show that the defendant unlawfully killed the victim with malice, premeditation, and deliberation. State v. Vause, 328 N.C. 231, 238, 400 S.E.2d 57, 62 (1991). Premeditation is defined as "thought [] beforehand for some length of time, however short[.]" State v. Robbins, 275 N.C. 537, 542, 169 S.E.2d 858, 861-62 (1969). Deliberation means that the act is done "in a cool state of the blood in furtherance of some fixed design." State v. Buffkin, 209 N.C. 117, 125, 183 S.E. 543, 548 (1936). "The question as to whether or not there has been deliberation is not ordinarily capable of actual proof, but must be determined by the jury from the circumstances." Id. at 125, 183 S.E. at 547. Factors to be considered in determining whether the defendant committed the crime after premeditation and deliberation include:

(1) [W]ant of provocation on the part of the deceased; (2) the conduct and statements of the defendant before and after the killing; (3) threats and declarations of the defendant before and during the course of the occurrence giving rise to the death of the deceased; (4) ill-will or previous difficulty between the parties; (5) the dealing of lethal blows after the deceased has been felled and rendered helpless; and (6) evidence that the killing was done in a brutal manner.

State v. Hamlet, 312 N.C. 162, 170, 321 S.E.2d 837, 843 (1984).

         The following evidence relevant to the issue of premeditation and deliberation was presented at trial:

         Mr. Perez suffered from a heart condition and other ailments. In the months leading up to the June 2013 death of Mr. Perez, Defendant and Mr. Perez began arguing, mostly about financial issues. Defendant had begun a romantic relationship with her therapist and planned to ask Mr. Perez for a divorce.

         Pursuant to a search of a home computer, law enforcement discovered internet searches from March 2013 including "upon death of a veteran, " "can tasers kill people, " "can tasers kill people with a heart condition, " "what is the best handgun for under $200, " "death in absentia USA, " and "declare someone dead if missing 3 years."

         On the day Mr. Perez was killed, Defendant visited her nephew, who was a gun enthusiast. While visiting, Defendant expressed concerns about her personal safety due to break-ins in her neighborhood, and her nephew gave her a gun and a knife. Shortly after being given these weapons, Defendant returned home and asked Mr. Perez to go on a drive with her so that she could ask him for a divorce. Defendant took both the gun and the knife with ...

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