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State v. Lee

Supreme Court of North Carolina

April 6, 2018

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
GYRELL SHAVONTA LEE

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 6 November 2017.

          On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 789 S.E.2d 679 (2016), finding no error after appeal from a judgment entered on 12 July 2015 by Judge J. Carlton Cole in Superior Court, Pasquotank County.

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

          Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Paul M. Green, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellant.

          Williams Mullen, by Camden R. Webb; and Ilya Shapiro, pro hac vice, for Cato Institute, amicus curiae.

          NEWBY, Justice.

         This case is about whether the trial court erroneously instructed the jury when it omitted the relevant stand-your-ground provision from its instructions on self-defense, and, if so, whether such error was preserved. By omitting the relevant stand-your-ground provision, the trial court's jury instructions were an inaccurate and misleading statement of the law. Such error is preserved when the trial court deviates from an agreed-upon pattern instruction. Defendant has shown a reasonable possibility that, had the trial court given the required stand-your-ground instruction, a different result would have been reached at trial. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals. Defendant is entitled to a new trial with proper self-defense and stand-your-ground instructions.

         On 31 December 2012, defendant celebrated New Year's Eve at a neighbor's home in Elizabeth City. Shortly after midnight, defendant left his neighbor's home on foot and encountered several people convened around a car, including Quinton Epps (Epps) and defendant's cousin, Jamieal Walker (Walker). Epps and Walker were engaged in a heated argument. Epps ultimately left in the car, and defendant went inside his home. About twenty minutes later, another car approached defendant's home. Defendant and Walker were standing "beside the house and in the front yard." Defendant saw Epps exit the car's back passenger side. Walker and Epps began arguing, and Epps became verbally abusive and aggressive. Epps got back into the car and left the scene. Soon thereafter, another car drove alongside defendant's backyard, stopping briefly. Defendant retrieved his pistol and concealed it on his person, "[out of] instinct, " though defendant believed "[Epps] wasn't a threat at th[at] time." The car ultimately parked three houses down from defendant's residence. Epps and several others exited the car.

         Defendant and Walker walked down the street to talk to Epps. Epps and Walker again argued in the street and sidewalk area as defendant watched from a short distance. Defendant saw that Epps had a gun behind his back. The argument escalated, and Walker punched Epps in the face. Epps grabbed Walker's hoodie, shot him twice in the stomach, and continued shooting as Walker turned to flee. Walker was later found dead nearby.

         After Epps fired his last shot at Walker, Epps turned and pointed his gun at defendant. Before Epps could fire, defendant fatally shot Epps. Defendant stated that it happened quickly, lasting approximately four seconds, and added that he would have shot Epps to protect Walker but could not get a clear shot because Epps and Walker were too close together during the struggle. Defendant was ultimately indicted for first-degree murder.

         At trial defendant asserted that he fired the fatal shot in self-defense, maintaining that he shot Epps only after Epps turned the gun on him and denying that he continued to shoot after Epps fell to the ground. Defendant introduced evidence supporting his version of events, including, inter alia, an eyewitness, his police interview, and taped telephone calls from the jail. The State argued defendant did not shoot in self-defense and introduced, inter alia, a witness who testified that while Epps was "on the ground, " defendant "came out of nowhere" and "[ran] up and [kept] shooting [Epps]." During closing arguments, the State contended that defendant should have retreated because a reasonable person in defendant's shoes would have "removed himself from the situation" and "run[ ] away."

         At the trial court's request, the parties agreed to the delivery of N.C. P.I.-Crim. 206.10, the pattern jury instruction on first-degree murder and self-defense. This instruction provides, in relevant part: "Furthermore, the defendant has no duty to retreat in a place where the defendant has a lawful right to be." N.C. P.I.-Crim. 206.10 (June 2014). In addition, N.C. P.I.-Crim. 308.10, which is incorporated by reference in footnote 7 of N.C. P.I.-Crim. 206.10 and is entitled "Self-Defense, Retreat, " states that "[i]f the defendant was not the aggressor and the defendant was . . . [at a place the defendant had a lawful right to be], the defendant could stand the defendant's ground and repel force with force." Id. 308.10 (June 2012) (brackets in original).

         Though the trial court agreed to instruct the jury on self-defense according to N.C. P.I.-Crim. 206.10, it ultimately omitted the "no duty to retreat" language of N.C. P.I.-Crim. 206.10 from its actual instructions without prior notice to the parties and did not give any part of the "stand-your-ground" instruction. Defense counsel did not object to the instruction as given. Though the jury reported that it was deadlocked, it ultimately convicted defendant of second-degree murder, following approximately nine hours of deliberation. Defendant appealed.

         At the Court of Appeals, defendant argued that the trial court's "omission of a jury instruction that a person confronted with deadly force has no duty to retreat but can stand his ground" was error, preserved by the trial court's deviation from the agreed-upon pattern instruction, see State v. Withers, 179 N.C.App. 249, 255, 633 S.E.2d 863, 867 (2006), or plain error, regardless, see State v. Wilson, 197 N.C.App. 154, 164-65, 676 S.E.2d 512, 518-19, disc. rev. denied, 363 N.C. 589, 684 S.E.2d 158 (2009). The Court of Appeals affirmed defendant's conviction, reasoning that the law limits a defendant's right to stand his ground to "any place he or she has the lawful right to be, " State v. Lee, __ N.C.App. __, __, 789 S.E.2d 679, 685 (2016) (emphasis omitted) (quoting N.C. G.S. § 14-51.3(a) (2015)), which did not include the public street where the incident occurred. We allowed defendant's petition for discretionary review.

         Defendant contends the trial court erroneously omitted the relevant stand-your-ground provision and that such error is preserved by the trial court's deviation from the pattern instruction. We conclude that, by omitting the relevant stand-your- ground provision from the agreed-upon ...


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