in the Supreme Court on 10 October 2016. Following the
initial oral argument, this case was reargued on 9 October
as of right pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-27(a) from a
judgment imposing a sentence of death entered by Judge R.
Stuart Albright on 21 March 2014 in Superior Court, Forsyth
County, upon a jury verdict finding defendant guilty of
H. Stein, Attorney General, by Mary Carla Babb and Kimberly
N. Callahan, Assistant Attorneys General, for the State.
Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Barbara S. Blackman, John F.
Carella, and Kathryn L. VandenBerg, Assistant Appellate
Defenders, for defendant-appellant.
Juan Carlos Rodriguez was convicted of the first-degree
murder of his estranged wife, Maria Magdelana Rodriguez, and
sentenced to death. After careful consideration of
defendant's challenges to his convictions and sentence in
light of the record and the applicable law, we find no error
in the proceedings leading to defendant's conviction and
the jury's rejection of his intellectual disability
defense.On the other hand, we conclude that the
trial court erred by failing, acting ex mero motu,
to submit the statutory mitigating circumstance enumerated in
N.C. G.S. § 15A-2000(f)(6) ("[t]he capacity of the
defendant to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to
conform his conduct to the requirements of law was
impaired") to the jury at defendant's capital
sentencing hearing. As a result, we vacate defendant's
death sentence and remand this case to the Superior Court,
Forsyth County, for a new capital sentencing hearing.
and Ms. Rodriguez became emotionally involved with each other
in late 1992. The couple married when Ms. Rodriguez was
thirteen years old and defendant was sixteen or seventeen
years old and had their first child when Ms. Rodriguez was
fourteen years old. Unfortunately, defendant became
physically and emotionally abusive towards Ms. Rodriguez
following their marriage. This pattern of domestic violence
continued after the couple came to the United States.
October 2010, Ms. Rodriguez entered a domestic violence
shelter with her three children because she could "no
longer live with [her] husband" and did not "have
anywhere else to go." At the time that she entered the
shelter, Ms. Rodriguez noted on an intake form that defendant
had threatened to kill her, controlled most of her daily
activities, and was violently jealous of her. Although Ms.
Rodriguez left the shelter on 19 October 2010, she returned
on 29 October to retrieve certain medications that she had
left at that location. During the 29 October visit to the
domestic violence shelter, Ms. Rodriguez seemed
"happy" and "optimistic" and told shelter
personnel that, while she was "doing well" and
while Mr. Rodriguez "ha[d] not tried to move back in,
" "she [wa]s struggling to find employment"
and "need[ed] assistance with food." On the other
hand, Ms. Rodriguez told her friend, Merlyn Rodriguez, on 17
November 2010, that she was afraid of defendant; that he had
"told her that if they didn't get back together, he
would kill her"; and that "he could get rid of her
and just throw her in the river."
November 2010, defendant came to the couple's former
apartment, which was located at 1828 Trellis Lane in
Winston-Salem and in which Ms. Rodriguez and the children had
resided following the couple's separation, and asked Ms.
Rodriguez to speak with him privately in the master bedroom.
After a few minutes, the Rodriguez children, who were
listening to music in the living room, heard Ms. Rodriguez
cry for help. Santos Estela Rodriguez, one of the
couple's children, attempted to open the door to the
master bedroom but found that it was locked. After failing to
gain access to the master bedroom by using a knife, Santos
Estela Rodriguez told defendant that she was going to call
the police. Shortly thereafter, defendant emerged from the
master bedroom with blood on his knuckles, feet, and clothes.
As soon as Santos Estela Rodriguez entered the master bedroom
and "saw her mother on the floor" "breathing
really hard, " defendant stated that Ms. Rodriguez had
hurt herself on the furniture and that he was taking Ms.
Rodriguez to the hospital. After hoisting Ms. Rodriguez over
his shoulder, defendant carried her to his vehicle.
hours later, defendant returned to 1828 Trellis Lane without
Ms. Rodriguez. Upon arriving at the apartment, defendant
asked the children and the son of a neighbor to help him
clean the blood stained carpeting in the master bedroom.
Although Santos Estela Rodriguez called all of the nearby
hospitals, she was never able to locate her mother. On the
following morning, 19 November 2010, defendant took the
children to the home of his boss, Henry Ramirez, who lived in
Eden. During the trip to Eden, Santos Estela Rodriguez
observed the presence of blood in defendant's vehicle. A
subsequent examination of defendant's vehicle by
investigating officers revealed the presence of vomitus on
the rear floorboard on the driver's side and blood on the
interior of the rear driver's side door jamb, the back
portion of the rear seat, a tan shirt located upon the upper
portion of the rear seat, the rear floor mat on the
driver's side, and the spare tire cover in the trunk.
time that investigating officers searched the apartment at
1828 Trellis Lane, they noticed that the premises were in
disarray and that cleaning products could be found throughout
the residence. "[A] large pool of blood or a large stain
of what appeared to be blood [could be seen] on [the]
carpet." According to another investigating officer, the
carpet in the master bedroom "was discolored a pinkish
color" and "frayed as though it had been
scrubbed." Additional blood spatter patterns could be
observed in the master bedroom as well.
about 11:30 p.m. on 18 November 2010, Merlyn Rodriguez 's
sister, Zoila Rodriguez, began receiving messages from Ms.
Rodriguez's phone. The messages received from Ms.
Rodriguez 's phone stated that:
Soyla, I went with my secret boyfriend to Spain. Carlos does
not know. If he calls, tell him the truth and take care of
the children. I met him three months ago. Cut the phone off
because it doesn't work in the airport. Good-bye. I will
call you from Spain. . . . I don't have a charge anymore.
Good-bye. Cut the telephone off. Later, I will fix it. I will
call you from there.
Ms. Rodriguez knew how to spell Zoila Rodriguez's name,
defendant later spelled Zoila's name as "Soyla"
while conversing with investigating officers.
On 19 November 2010, Merlyn Rodriguez attempted to telephone
Ms. Rodriguez on several occasions. However, each of Merlyn
Rodriguez's calls went unanswered. After ascertaining
that Ms. Rodriguez was not in her apartment, Merlyn Rodriguez
called defendant, who initially told Merlyn Rodriguez that he
did not know where Ms. Rodriguez was before stating that Ms.
Rodriguez had "[s]tepped out of the house that
night" and "never came back" and finally
that Ms. Rodriguez had "had an accident that night"
and "was at the hospital."
her conversation with defendant, Merlyn Rodriguez called the
police. Officer L.N. Williams of the Winston-Salem Police
Department responded to Merlyn Rodriguez's missing person
report, entered Ms. Rodriguez's apartment, and determined
that she was not there. At that point, Officer Williams
obtained defendant's phone number from Merlyn Rodriguez
and called defendant for the purpose of inquiring into Ms.
Rodriguez's whereabouts. Defendant told Officer Williams
that Ms. Rodriguez had gone for a walk and did not return.
After ascertaining that Ms. Rodriguez was not at work or at a
local shelter and that the Rodriguez children were not in
school, investigating officers began treating this matter as
a high-risk missing person's case.
spent the night of 19 November 2010 with his pastor, David
Agueda, in Martinsville, Virginia. On the following morning,
while leading Saturday services, Pastor Agueda learned that
investigating officers were looking for defendant and Ms.
Rodriguez. Upon obtaining this information, Pastor Agueda
advised defendant to turn himself in.
approximately 7:00 p.m. on 19 November 2010, Lieutenant
Steven Tollie of the Winston-Salem Police Department
reclassified the case as a homicide and assigned it to
Detective Stanley Nieves. After investigating officers
located defendant on 21 November 2010, he was taken to Eden
to be interviewed by Detective Nieves. In response to
Detective Nieves's request that he describe the events
that had occurred on 18 November 2010 at the 1828 Trellis
Lane apartment, defendant stated that Ms. Rodriguez had told
him that she was a lesbian and no longer wanted to be with
him, that Ms. Rodriguez had hit her head against the dresser
while lunging at him, and that Ms. Rodriguez had called for
help after falling to the floor. At that point, defendant
assisted Ms. Rodriguez in her efforts to get up, carried her
to his car, and began to drive her to the hospital. As he did
so, Ms. Rodriguez told defendant to stop, left the vehicle,
and walked out of defendant's sight. Although Detective
Nieves repeatedly accused defendant of having killed Ms.
Rodriguez and having knowledge of the location at which Ms.
Rodriguez's body could be found, defendant repeatedly
denied Detective Nieves's accusations.
afternoon of 12 December 2010, which was a "very cold,
damp" day featuring light snow and misty rain,
investigating officers received a report that a decapitated
body had been discovered in an area near 5020 Williamsburg
Road in Winston-Salem that was "overgrown with small
bushy pines" about "40 to 50 feet to the west of
the asphalt area." Fingerprint information obtained from
the body established that it was that of Ms. Rodriguez. On 29
May 2013, a human skull, later determined to be that of Ms.
Rodriguez through the use of DNA analysis, was found in a
wooded area near Belews Lake in rural Forsyth County.
to Patrick Lantz, M.D., who autopsied the body, Ms. Rodriguez
was in the early stages of decomposition at the time that her
body was discovered. Dr. Lantz observed "maggot activity
around the incision on the skin, " incision marks around
her clavicle, and a number of bruises all over her body
characteristic of defensive wounds." Dr. Lantz opined
that "the cause of death was manual strangulation,
" that Ms. Rodriguez had been decapitated after her
death, and that, while there was "not exactly"
"a scientific way to determine a postmortem interval,
" he believed, based upon information that he had
received from investigating officers concerning the date upon
which Ms. Rodriguez had last been seen alive and the
observations that he had made during the autopsy and at the
location at which the body had been discovered, that Ms.
Rodriguez had died on 18 November 2010 and that the
postmortem interval "was consistent with her being out
there for three and a half weeks, or 24 days."
she acknowledged that a forensic pathologist would be better
qualified than she was to make such a determination, Dr. Ann
Ross, a forensic anthropologist, concluded that Ms. Rodriguez
's abdominal area showed no signs of greening, which
appears early in the putrefaction process. In addition, Dr.
Ross believed that the crime scene and autopsy photographs
suggested that Ms. Rodriguez "was still in the fresh
state" of decomposition at the time that her body was
found given the absence of significant marbling or maggot
masses. According to Dr. Ross, "the remains of the
decedent were in a fresh state" and had "not been
out in the environmental conditions before December 1."
Similarly, Thomas L. Bennett, M.D., a forensic pathologist,
was of the opinion that "the most probable time
frame" "is that [Ms.] Rodriguez was dead between
three and seven days or so prior to her body being found on
Defendant's Life History
was born on 11 November 1974 in the Usulutan Department of El
Salvador. Defendant and his family left the Usulutan
Department "somewhere between 1979 and 1982"
"because of the guerillas, who were the leftist fighters
in the civil war in El Salvador." Defendant's family
ultimately settled in Anchila, a location that was believed
to be safe, when defendant was a child. However, the
guerillas "began to occupy the area across the river
from Anchila" after the Rodriguez family arrived at that
Rodriguez home in Anchila was a "one-room hut[ ] with
dirt floors. The walls were made out of sticks and mud."
Although the roof was made out of "grass or tin, "
"there[ was] no solid wall" or "security to
speak of." "[D]uring the rainy season, the floods
would flood through the house, " exposing the family
"to all kinds of bacteria, viruses, decaying animals,
[and] human waste" from a nearby outhouse.
in Anchila, defendant "didn't have access to medical
care, " did not "attend school of any kind, "
and experienced "[c]hronic hunger [as] a way of
life." Upon reaching the age of nine, defendant was sent
to live with an aunt in San Salvador, which was considered to
be safer and to have less fighting than Anchila. While in San
Salvador, defendant began to receive medical care and entered
the first grade. After successfully completing the first
grade while failing the second grade, defendant returned to
Anchila to help his family and repeat the second grade when
he was eleven or twelve years old.
time that defendant returned to Anchila, "the civil war
was very much raging around the family." Defendant heard
"shooting at night and [remembered] the family being on
the floor in terror." "It was not uncommon for [the
family] to see dead bodies along the way when they were
walking to school" and to "hear bomb[s] blasting[ ]
and shooting." When defendant was sixteen years old, his
older brother, Jose Fermin, was killed by guerillas after
joining the army. Defendant was responsible for retrieving
his brother's body and bringing it to the family home.
While he was still sixteen and in the seventh grade,
defendant dropped out of school.
Jose Fermin's death and defendant's marriage to Ms.
Rodriguez, defendant relocated to the United States. Upon
arriving in this country, defendant was granted asylum on the
grounds that he had been "threatened by the
guerillas" and was "[l]iving in constant fear"
and received authorization to work. Although defendant's
son, Fermin, remained in El Salvador with defendant's
father, Ms. Rodriguez joined defendant in the United States,
where the couple had three more children, Santos Estela, Juan
Carlos, Jr., and Jonathan.
Selena Sermeno, an expert in the field of clinical psychology
who specializes in issues involving El Salvadoran young
people, testified that the "protective and risk
factors" present in a child's life, coupled with
"the presence of chronic violence and trauma and
adversity" and "[f]actors such as poverty,
malnutrition, poor health, falls, exposure to trauma, any
form of traumatic event, [and] the presence of fear, "
affect the child's intellectual capabilities. According
to Dr. Sermeno, the civil war that occurred in El Salvador
during defendant's adolescence had a significant negative
effect upon his cognitive development. Among other things,
Dr. Sermeno observed that defendant's memory and
communication skills were impaired, which is "a very
classic symptom in children who are traumatized to that
degree." Defendant struggled "to recall information
in any kind of chronological sequential or linear format,
" was confused by numerical concepts, and answered
questions in a very literal manner. In addition,
defendant's exposure to dangerous pesticides and
contaminated water caused him to suffer from frequent
illnesses, for which he never received proper medical care.
Dr. Sermeno believed that the existence of these adverse
environmental conditions had a significant effect upon
defendant's intellectual development as well.
to Dr. Sermeno, defendant suffered from post-traumatic stress
disorder and a mild intellectual disability. In support of
the second of these two diagnoses, Dr. Sermeno pointed to the
fact that defendant scored 61 on the third edition of the
Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-III). In Dr.
Sermeno's view, defendant had particular difficulties
with functional academic learning and communication skills,
with these deficiencies having manifested themselves before
defendant reached the age of eighteen. In addition, Dr.
Sermeno's intellectual disability diagnosis also rested
upon defendant's exposure to extreme poverty, severe
malnutrition, constant violence, pesticides, educational
obstacles, and inadequate health care. Finally, Dr. Sermeno
believed that defendant's post-traumatic stress disorder
made it difficult for him to express strong emotions through
verbal communication and body language.
Artigues, M.D., a general and forensic psychiatrist,
testified that she had evaluated defendant's
"developmental history and the impact that that may have
had on him, as well as . . . his affect and demeanor, his
face and his manner, and to form opinions about that as
well." Dr. Artigues analyzes whether a person has an
intellectual disability by examining that person's
"background information, in terms of poverty,
malnutrition, deprivation, education resources, and medical
resources, " "[b]ecause lack in any of those can
affect intellectual development in children." According
to Dr. Artigues, severe trauma, like that associated with
"growing up in a civil war, very poor, and malnourished,
causes the brain to wire in a way that's not optimal, and
it can certainly affect your IQ as a result of the faulty
wiring." As a child in El Salvador, defendant lacked
access to medical care, experienced nutritional deprivation,
and had no educational stimulation until he reached the age
of ten, all of which can affect an individual's brain
development and contribute to the development of a low
intelligence quotient. Moreover, the experience of growing up
during a civil war can result in accumulated trauma over time
which can, in turn, lead to the development of post-traumatic
stress disorder. In Dr. Artigues's view, a child's
attempts to cope "with this chronic trauma and extreme
stress" can affect the child's brain development and
Artigues's opinion, defendant was mildly intellectually
disabled. In support of this assertion, Dr. Artigues
considered the fact that defendant had to make six different
attempts to pass his driver's license test after reaching
the United States. In addition, Dr. Artiques noted that,
while interviewing defendant, he failed to grasp abstract
concepts and had difficulty relaying information in
chronological order, both of which conditions, in Dr.
Artigues's opinion, reflect the existence of an
intellectual disability. Dr. Artigues testified that
defendant learned how to be a brick mason by being shown
measurements marked permanently on a yardstick rather than by
utilizing mathematics, with this type of learning limitation
being typical of persons suffering from a mild intellectual
disability. According to Dr. Artigues, intellectually
disabled individuals have the ability to drive motor
vehicles, work, marry, and have children. Dr. Artigues
believed that defendant's intellectual disability
manifested itself before he turned eighteen years of age in
light of defendant's school records, intelligence
quotient test scores, the results achieved during
defendant's psychological evaluations, and
defendant's exposure to malnutrition, severe trauma, and
poverty. In Dr. Artigues's view, defendant was
significantly deficient in functional academics and
communication skills. Finally, Dr. Artigues determined that
defendant suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder given
that he had been exposed to significant trauma during his
life, reported having had intrusive thoughts about the
traumatic events that he had experienced, and experienced
certain specific triggering events.
Antonio Puente, a clinical neuropsychologist and professor of
psychology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington,
conducted a neuropsychological evaluation of defendant. Dr.
Puente testified that the fact that defendant had a full
scale score of 61 on the Central American, Spanish language
version of the WAIS-III placed defendant in the bottom one
percentile of the population. In addition, Dr. Puente
administered the Beta Test, Third Edition; the Comprehensive
Test of Nonverbal Intelligence, Second Edition; and the
Bateria Test, Third Edition, to defendant. According to Dr.
Puente, the Beta test was developed to measure the
intellectual abilities of individuals who lack a formal
education. Defendant had a score of 65 on the Beta Test, a
result that placed him in the bottom one percent of the
population. Similarly, Dr. Puente testified that
defendant's full-scale score of 53 on the Comprehensive
Test of Nonverbal Intelligence placed him in the bottom
percentile. Although the Bateria test does not produce an
intelligence quotient score, it does generate an intellectual
abilities number. Defendant's intellectual abilities
score placed him in the second percentile from the bottom.
According to Dr. Puente, mild intellectual disability
involves an intelligence quotient of between 50 and 70.
sign of mild intellectual disability, in Dr. Puente's
view, is the presence of only some of the skills that allow
an individual to function in society. Dr. Puente undertook
this portion of his analysis by examining defendant's
school records, driving tests, and the opinions of
knowledgeable persons concerning defendant's functional
capabilities. In addition, Dr. Puente administered sixteen
additional neuropsychological tests to defendant, three of
which were used to assess the reliability of defendant's
responses and the adequacy of defendant's efforts during
the testing process. According to Dr. Puente, defendant's
test results did not reflect malingering and accurately
demonstrated the extent of defendant's abilities. As a
result, Dr. Puente testified that defendant has significant
sub-average intellectual functioning; has deficient
cognitive, social, and practical skills; and is significantly
impaired in the areas of functional academics and
communication skills, with all of these diagnostic criteria
having manifested themselves before defendant attained the
age of eighteen.
Kramer, M.D., a forensic neuropsychiatrist and professor of
psychiatry at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, testified
on behalf of the State that the El Salvadoran school system,
which is much less rigorous than the United States school
system, grades students on a scale from one to ten, with five
being the lowest passing score. According to Dr. Kramer, most
of defendant's grades were in the six to seven range, a
set of results that is inconsistent with the presence of mild
intellectual disability. In addition, Dr. Kramer noted that
defendant could perform the chores expected of similarly aged
children, another fact that suggests that defendant did not
suffer from mild intellectual disability. In a similar vein,
Dr. Kramer noted that defendant had been able to find
employment in the United States that paid more than the
minimum wage and that he had been known to
"motivate" his co-workers, with these facts also
being inconsistent with a contention that defendant suffers
from a mild intellectual disability. According to Dr. Kramer,
other activities in which defendant engaged, including the
payment of taxes, the maintenance of his immigration status,
and his ability to obtain a driver's license,
"show[ed that defendant had] a level of adaptive
functioning beyond that [expected] for the deficits requisite
for a diagnosis of" intellectual disability.
Kramer testified that Detective Nieves had described
defendant's Spanish as grammatically correct and that
defendant had used an appropriate volume when speaking with
the detective. Dr. Kramer noted that defendant had received a
number of visitors since the date of his incarceration, a
fact that tends to suggest that defendant has a social
network and demonstrates his adaptive abilities. Dr. Kramer
considered defendant's request for a Spanish-to-English
dictionary, a Bible, and a Spanish textbook while in pretrial
detention to indicate that defendant has the apparent ability
to read and desired to engage in that activity, with those
attributes further tending to show that defendant has
adaptive capabilities. On the other hand, Dr. Kramer, like
Dr. Artigues, believed that defendant has difficulty
understanding abstract concepts like confidentiality or
to Dr. Kramer, Dr. Puente mischaracterized the results of
defendant's Dot Counting Test, an instrument used to
detect malingering, because defendant "did worse the
second time he did the test and was way over the threshold
for suspecting not giving full effort." Dr. Kramer noted
that defendant was "overtly cooperative, " had a
normal mood range, spoke Spanish in a clear and distinct
manner while exhibiting a regular rate and rhythm, and had no
difficulty with the comprehension portion of the exam. In
addition, while defendant could not identify the year, month,
day of the week, or season, he was able to perform complex
commands without difficulty. The fact that defendant could