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State v. Miller

Supreme Court of North Carolina

June 8, 2018


          Heard in the Supreme Court on 13 March 2018.

         On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 801 S.E.2d 696 (2017), vacating judgments entered on 8 April 2016 by Judge Edwin G. Wilson, Jr., in Superior Court, Guilford County, and remanding for further proceedings. On 17 August 2017, the Supreme Court allowed defendant's conditional petition for discretionary review as to additional issues.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by David J. Adinolfi II, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellant/appellee.

          Mark Montgomery for defendant-appellee/appellant.

          ERVIN, JUSTICE.

         The issue before this Court in this case is whether the Court of Appeals erred by vacating the judgments entered by the trial court based upon defendant, Marvin Everette Miller, Jr.'s convictions for first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder on the grounds that certain evidence had been admitted in violation of defendant's constitutional right to confront the State's witnesses against him. After careful consideration of the record in light of the applicable law, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the Court of Appeals for consideration of defendant's remaining challenges to the trial court's judgments.

         On 31 August 2013, Lakeshia Wells and her boyfriend, Marcus Robinson, celebrated Ms. Wells's birthday with family and friends at the Shriners nightclub in Greensboro. At some point after 2:00 a.m. on 1 September 2013, Ms. Wells and Mr. Robinson returned to Ms. Wells's apartment on Bulla Street. After the couple entered Ms. Wells's bedroom and had sexual intercourse, Ms. Wells told Mr. Robinson that she had heard something and asked Mr. Robinson to investigate the source of the noise. Upon determining that nothing was amiss on the lower floor of the apartment, Mr. Robinson returned to the upper floor, where he saw an individual, whom he later identified as defendant, standing in the hallway holding a knife.[1]

         After being seen by Mr. Robinson, defendant, who was Ms. Wells's estranged husband, entered Ms. Wells's bedroom, where an altercation occurred. As Mr. Robinson ran back downstairs in order to retrieve his cell phone and car keys, he was followed by defendant, [2] who cut Mr. Robinson's face before Mr. Robinson escaped through the back door while wearing only a tank top. Once he managed to get outside of Ms. Wells's apartment, Mr. Robinson called the police. Following the arrival of investigating officers, Mr. Robinson was transported to the hospital, where he was treated for his injuries.

         Detective Benjamin Mitchell of the Greensboro Police Department responded to a call regarding a stabbing at a Bulla Street address at 3:28 a.m. on 1 September 2013. Upon encountering Mr. Robinson, Officer Mitchell learned that someone had broken into Ms. Wells's apartment, that the intruder had begun stabbing the occupants, and that investigating officers needed to check on Ms. Wells, who was apparently still inside the apartment. As he entered the apartment, Officer Mitchell did not observe any signs of a forcible intrusion; however, he did determine that "some type of disturbance had occurred in the kitchen." For that reason, Officer Mitchell and other investigating officers began to search the apartment for both intruders and Ms. Wells. Upon making his way to the second floor, Officer Mitchell discovered the dead body of Ms. Wells at the top of the stairs.

         On 10 December 2012, approximately nine months before Ms. Wells was killed, Officer E.R. Kato of the Greensboro Police Department responded to a call at Ms. Wells's Bulla Street apartment relating to a domestic dispute. According to Officer Kato, Ms. Wells stated that she had been held in her apartment against her will for a period of two hours by her estranged husband. Although Officer Kato did not recall having observed any signs that Ms. Wells had sustained a physical injury, he noticed a tear and stress marks in the cotton shirt that Ms. Wells was wearing. At that point, Officer Kato accompanied Ms. Wells to her apartment and checked the premises to make sure that defendant had not remained at that location. Subsequently, defendant was charged with and convicted of domestic criminal trespass.

         On 4 November 2013, the Guilford County grand jury returned bills of indictment charging defendant with first-degree burglary, attempted first-degree murder, and first-degree murder. The charges against defendant came on for trial before the trial court and a jury at the 4 April 2016 criminal session of the Superior Court, Guilford County. On 8 April 2016, the jury returned verdicts acquitting defendant of first-degree burglary and first-degree murder on the basis of malice, premeditation, and deliberation and convicting defendant of attempted first-degree murder and first-degree murder on the basis of the felony murder rule using either first-degree burglary, attempted murder, or assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury as the predicate felony. Based upon the jury's verdicts, the trial court arrested judgment in the case in which defendant had been convicted of attempted first-degree murder and entered a judgment sentencing defendant to a term of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole based upon defendant's first-degree murder conviction. Defendant noted an appeal to the Court of Appeals from the trial court's judgments.

         In seeking relief from the trial court's judgments before the Court of Appeals, defendant argued that the trial court had erred by overruling his confrontation-based objection to the introduction of Officer Kato's testimony concerning the statements that Ms. Wells made to him on 10 December 2012. According to defendant, the statements that Ms. Wells had made to Officer Kato were testimonial in nature given the absence of any ongoing emergency at the time those statements were made, citing State v. Bodden, 190 N.C.App. 505, 514, 661 S.E.2d 23, 28 (2008) (explaining that "[s]tatements are testimonial when circumstances objectively indicate there is no ongoing emergency and the primary purpose of the interrogation is to establish or prove past events that will be relevant later in a criminal prosecution"), appeal dismissed and disc. rev. denied, 363 N.C. 131, 675 S.E.2d 660, cert. denied, 558 U.S. 865, 130 S.Ct. 175, 175 L.Ed.2d 111 (2009). In addition, defendant argued that the forfeiture doctrine did not extinguish defendant's confrontation rights given the absence of any evidence tending to show that defendant had killed Ms. Wells for the purpose of preventing her from testifying about the domestic criminal trespass case that resulted from the 10 December 2012 incident, citing Giles v. California, 554 U.S. 353, 361, 128 S.Ct. 2678, 2684, 171 L.Ed.2d 488, 497 (2008) (explaining "that unconfronted testimony would not be admitted without a showing that the defendant intended to prevent a witness from testifying"). Finally, defendant asserted that the trial court had erred by failing to make findings of fact or conclusions of law in support of its decision to overrule his objection to the challenged portion of Officer Kato's testimony, (citing State v. Silva, 304 N.C. 122, 136, 282 S.E.2d 449, 457-58 (1981)).[3]

         The State, on the other hand, argued that Officer Kato's testimony concerning the statements that Ms. Wells made at the time of the 10 December 2012 incident stemmed from an informal conversation that occurred during an ongoing emergency arising from a domestic dispute between defendant and Ms. Wells, citing Davis v. Washington, 547 U.S. 813, 822, 126 S.Ct. 2266, 2273-74, 165 L.Ed.2d 224, 237 (2006) (explaining that "[s]tatements are nontestimonial when made in the course of police interrogation under circumstances objectively indicating that the primary purpose of the interrogation is to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency" and "are testimonial when the circumstances objectively indicate that there is no such ongoing emergency, and that the primary purpose of the interrogation is to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution"). According to the State, the nontestimonial nature of the challenged statements was established by Officer Kato's observations concerning the damage to Ms. Wells's clothing and Officer Kato's decision to "clear" Ms. Wells's apartment. In the State's view, a reviewing court must consider the degree of "informality of the situation and the interrogation" in deciding whether to treat challenged extra-judicial statements as either testimonial or nontestimonial, quoting Michigan v. Bryant, 562 U.S. 344, 377, 131 S.Ct. 1143, 1166, 179 L.Ed.2d 93, 109 (2011), with the statements at issue in this case being informal rather than formal. Moreover, even if the statements that Ms. Wells made to Officer Kato were testimonial rather than nontestimonial in nature, defendant had previously had an opportunity to cross-examine Ms. Wells concerning those statements when the 10 December 2012 domestic criminal trespass charge came on for trial, citing Crawford v. Washington, 541 U.S. 36, 68, 124 S.Ct. 1354, 1374, 158 L.Ed.2d 177, 203 (2004) (explaining that, "[w]here testimonial evidence is at issue, " "the Sixth Amendment demands what the common law required: unavailability and a prior opportunity for cross-examination"). Finally, the State contends that defendant had forfeited his right to confront Ms. Wells by wrongfully killing her, citing United States v. Jackson, 706 F.3d 264, 269 (4th Cir.) (explaining that "defendants might be tempted to murder, injure, or intimidate witnesses before trial and then invoke their constitutional right to confrontation to ensure that those witnesses' statements are never heard in court"), cert. denied, 569 U.S. 1024, 133 S.Ct. 2782, 186 L.Ed.2d 229 (2013), with "[d]efendant's clear intent to prevent Ms. Wells from testifying at any subsequent case [being inferable] from defendant's action of fatally stabbing her in the heart."

         After noting that defendant had properly preserved this issue purposes of appellate review, State. Miller, __ N.C.App. __, ___, 801 S.E.2d 696, 698 (2017), the Court of Appeals pointed out that "[t]he Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment bars admission of testimonial statements of a witness who did not appear at trial, unless the witness was unavailable to testify and the defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the witness, " id. At ___, 801 S.E.2d at 698 (citing Bodden, 190 N.C.App. at 513, 661 S.E.2d at 28). According to the Court of Appeals, the statements that Ms. Wells made to Officer Kato on 10 December 2012 were testimonial in nature because "there was no immediate threat or ongoing emergency when the officer spoke to [Ms.] Wells" given that Ms. Wells had reached a safe location by the time that she called for assistance. Id. At ___, 801 S.E.2d at 698 (citing State v. Lewis, 361 N.C. 541, 547, 648 S.E.2d 824, 828-29 (2007)). In addition, the Court of Appeals concluded that the questions that Officer Kato posed to Ms. Wells "were focused on 'what happened' rather than 'what is happening.' " Id. At ___, 801 S.E.2d at 698 (quoting Lewis, 361 N.C. at 547, 648 S.E.2d at 829). The Court of Appeals rejected the State's contention that defendant had "had an opportunity to cross-examine [Ms.] Wells on these issues at an earlier trial for criminal domestic trespass, " reasoning that it had no way to know if Ms. Wells "actually gave this testimony at the earlier trial because the record does not contain any transcripts or evidence from that proceeding, " id. at, 801 S.E.2d at 699, and held that defendant had not forfeited his right to confront Ms. Wells despite having killed her on the theory that "forfeiture [by wrongdoing] applies 'only when the defendant engaged in conduct designed to prevent the witness from testifying, ' " with the record being devoid of any indication that defendant killed Ms. Wells for that purpose. Id. At ___, 801 S.E.2d at 699 (quoting Giles, 554 U.S. at 359, 128 S.Ct. at 2683, 171 L.Ed.2d at 496-98). Finally, the Court of Appeals held that the State's failure to argue that the admission of the challenged statements constituted harmless error precluded it from determining that the admission of Officer Kato's testimony concerning Ms. Wells's statements was non-prejudicial. Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals observed that, in light of the presence of overwhelming evidence of defendant's guilt, the disputed ...

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