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State v. Smith

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

January 15, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 29 November 2018.

          Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 22 February 2016 by Judge Paul C. Ridgeway in Wake County No. 13 CRS 211979 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Derrick C. Mertz, for the State.

          Lisa Miles for defendant-appellant.

          TYSON, JUDGE.

         Travion Smith ("Defendant") appeals from judgment entered following a jury's verdict finding him guilty of first-degree murder. We find no error.

         I. Background

         On the evening of 13 May 2013, the day following Mother's Day, Defendant, Ronald Anthony ("Anthony"), and Sarah Redden ("Redden") were together in the vicinity of North Hills shopping center in Raleigh. The trio had been walking around several neighborhoods in the area, breaking into unlocked cars and stealing GPS devices, headphones, cell phones, and other valuables. Eventually they arrived at the Allister Apartments complex. The Allister Apartments consisted of several unoccupied buildings that were under construction and one occupied building.

         Melissa Huggins-Jones ("Huggins-Jones") and her eight-year-old daughter lived in one of the second-floor apartments of the occupied building. Huggins-Jones had recently moved to Raleigh from Tennessee to start a new job as a branch manager at a bank and to be closer to her mother, who lived in Wilmington. The front entrance of Huggins-Jones' apartment was located at the top of a set of stairs and down a breezeway. The back of the apartment had a balcony with a sliding glass door. The apartment located directly below Huggins-Jones' was being used as a temporary leasing office by the owner.

         Huggins-Jones' air conditioning had not been working properly on 13 May and the previous weekend. Huggins-Jones had called the apartment building's maintenance worker several times to have the AC unit repaired. The night of 13 May, Huggins-Jones kept "the windows in the bedrooms" and the "sliding [glass] door to the balcony" "wide open" to try and keep the apartment cool. Huggins-Jones' daughter also had a large box fan operating in her bedroom.

         After breaking into several cars, Defendant, Anthony, and Redden went to one of the unoccupied buildings of the Allister Apartments to look through their back packs at the items they had stolen. While Redden was charging her cell phone, Defendant and Anthony told her "they were going to go check something, and told [her] to wait there." Redden testified that she could not see where Defendant and Anthony went.

         After waiting about ten minutes, Redden walked outside the unoccupied building to look around for Defendant and Anthony. Redden did not see Defendant and Anthony, so she went back inside the unoccupied apartment to continue charging her cell phone. After waiting five more minutes, Redden stepped outside the apartment and observed Defendant and Anthony walking from the direction of the occupied apartment building.

         Defendant and Anthony again told Redden to stay at the unoccupied building, and they walked back in the direction of the occupied building. After waiting another ten minutes, Redden walked over to the occupied apartment. While Redden was outside the occupied apartment, a police car drove by and she hid in the breezeway of the building under the stairwell. Redden waited a minute until after the police car had left the area. She left the stairwell and heard a noise "like a shuffle" that made her look up.

         Redden observed Defendant standing on the second-floor balcony of Huggins-Jones' apartment. Defendant was using his shirt to wipe off the balcony railing. Redden told Defendant they needed to leave and asked him where Anthony was. In response, Defendant indicated to the sliding glass door behind him.

         A few minutes later, Redden saw lights from a car and she hid under the stairwell again. Redden observed a police car drive up and stop in the driveway of the apartment building for a "minute or so" and then leave. About five minutes later, Redden left the stairwell and walked to the other side of the apartment building. As she arrived at the other side of the building, Anthony ran up to her. Anthony told her "to just go" and that he was going to find Defendant.

         Redden ran to a fence that was bordering the apartment complex and shortly thereafter observed Anthony and Defendant running towards her. Anthony was carrying water bottles and Defendant carrying two laptop computers. The three jumped the fence and ran along Six Forks Road to a parking lot at North Hills shopping center.

         In the parking lot, Redden observed Anthony and Defendant wash their hands off with water from one of the water bottles. Anthony then called and asked an acquaintance to pick them up. Anthony referred to this acquaintance as "Reese." Reese arrived and picked up Defendant, Anthony, and Redden, and drove them to a nightclub called "Flashbacks." Redden testified that during the car ride, Anthony showed Reese an iPhone in a "woman's colored case" and a bloody knife. Redden stated that Defendant was not surprised by Anthony displaying the bloody knife. Redden observed Defendant "looked [to have] specs (sic) of blood on his shirt."

         Upon arriving at the nightclub, Anthony and Reese went inside while Redden and Defendant waited outside. Redden asked Defendant, "What is going on?" Defendant told her "to let it go, don't ask questions, just forget about it."

         After leaving the nightclub, Defendant, Anthony, and Redden checked into a Super 8 Motel at approximately 3:25 a.m. At the motel, Redden observed Defendant remove the two laptop computers from his back pack. Defendant kept a silver one and gave the other orange-colored one to Anthony. Redden testified that Defendant asked Anthony, "What the hell just happened?" Defendant then said, "Man, I got a son." Redden described Defendant as "nervous about not seeing his son."

         Redden also testified that Defendant and Anthony had a conversation about "being happy that the little girl did not wake up." Huggins-Jones' daughter testified she kept a large, loud box fan in her bedroom to help her sleep and that she had it on that night. Huggins-Jones' daughter recalled "hear[ing] a screaming noise" that night, but went back to sleep because "[i]t didn't sound like it was in our apartment."

         Redden never observed what Defendant and Anthony did with the knife, iPhone, or clothes they had worn earlier in the evening.

         At approximately 7:00 a.m., Huggins-Jones' daughter discovered her mother's body. She went outside the apartment building and sought help from two construction employees working in the vicinity of the apartment complex. The two construction workers accompanied Huggins-Jones' daughter into the apartment unit and called 911. One of the construction workers observed Huggins-Jones dead upon the bed in her bedroom. He described her appearance in the bedroom: "I could tell she had blood all over her face and blood was everywhere, and I put three fingers on her wrist and there was no pulse, and she was cold as a block of ice[.]"

         Shortly thereafter, emergency personnel arrived at the scene and confirmed Huggins-Jones had died from unnatural causes. Dr. Lauren Scott of the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner performed the autopsy of Huggins-Jones and verified she had suffered at least eighteen separate blows to her face, neck, and upper chest area consistent with both blunt and sharp force trauma, in addition to multiple bruises.

         Huggins-Jones injuries included, in part: a fractured skull, a broken jaw, a broken nose, a severed carotid artery, four dislodged teeth, "a chop wound" into her left shoulder, and puncture wounds in the left and right sides of her chest and shoulders. There were multiple bruises on her arms consistent with defensive wounds, in addition to several bruises on her face, back, and legs. Dr. Scott testified it took Huggins-Jones "anywhere from several minutes to an hour to die."

         First responders and police investigators testified to the state of disarray in Huggins-Jones' apartment. Various items had been overturned on her dresser, her nightstand door had been torn off, window blinds had been pulled off the wall, a purse had been emptied on the kitchen table, a drawer from a jewelry armoire had been pulled out and blood found on one of the jewelry boxes.

         Investigators discovered Huggins-Jones' blood on her bedroom doorknob, her daughter's bedroom doorknob, Huggins-Jones' purse, her wallet, two checkbooks, and a book cover in the hallway. A droplet of Huggins-Jones' blood was found on the apartment balcony, and a swabbing of the balcony railing tested positive for her blood.

         Police investigators also discovered that the leasing office in the apartment unit immediately below Huggins-Jones' unit had been robbed. Various items were in disarray in the office and two Lenovo laptop computers, one silver and the other orange, were missing along with a Canon digital camera, charger, and camera bag.

         Approximately a week later, on 20 May 2013, police found an orange Lenovo laptop bearing the same serial number as the one stolen from the leasing office beneath Huggins-Jones' apartment listed for sale on the Craigslist website. Detective Zeke Morse of the Raleigh Police Department posed as an interested buyer and contacted the seller of the laptop, Mike McCollum ("McCollum"), who lived in Wake Forest. Detective Morse offered to pay the listed price for the laptop and arranged to meet McCollum the afternoon of 20 May at a Wal-Mart store parking lot located in Wake Forest. McCollum became suspicious of the high offer price for the laptop. McCollum removed the listing for the orange laptop from Craigslist, did not appear at the agreed upon location, and did not return further calls from Detective Morse.

         Police began surveillance of McCollum's residence that same day and later obtained a warrant to search the residence on 21 May. During the execution of the search warrant, police discovered the stolen silver Lenovo laptop and arrested McCollum.

         McCollum cooperated with the police and explained to them how had he obtained the silver laptop. Anthony had called and asked him to sell two Lenovo laptops that Anthony "was trying to get rid of" but had told him "they weren't stolen." Anthony text messaged McCollum pictures of the orange laptop, which McCollum used to list the laptop on Craigslist. Anthony used his girlfriend's, Amber Alberts' ("Alberts"), cellphone to send the text messages to McCollum. On 20 May 2013, McCollum posted the listing for the orange laptop, but he did not yet have possession of either the orange or silver laptops.

         McCollum stated that on the morning of 21 May, he had received a phone call from Defendant. Defendant informed McCollum that he was at the Wal-Mart store in Wake Forest and had the silver laptop for McCollum to sell. McCollum sent his fiancée and her friend to pick up Defendant and bring him to McCollum's residence. Defendant provided McCollum with the silver laptop in exchange for McCollum giving him $50 up front. McCollum's girlfriend drove Defendant back to the Wal-Mart store in Wake Forest.

         Undercover police officers conducting surveillance of McCollum's residence observed a person, who was later determined to be Defendant, leave the residence. The officers followed McCollum's fiancée's car as she drove Defendant back to the Wal-Mart store. McCollum's fiancée dropped Defendant off at the Wal-Mart store. One of the officers, Detective Gory Mendez of the Raleigh Police Department, remained behind at the Wal-Mart store to determine Defendant's identity. The other undercover officers followed McCollum's fiancée back to McCollum's residence.

         Detective Mendez lost sight of Defendant for approximately thirty minutes, but eventually found him sitting inside a car with Anthony, Alberts, and another woman, in a parking lot near the Wal-Mart store. Detective Mendez observed the four individuals get out of the car and walk over to the Wal-Mart store. Detective Mendez made arrangements to have law enforcement officers with the Raleigh Police Department come pick up Defendant and Anthony and take them to the police station for questioning. During the time Detective Mendez was following Defendant, other officers were executing the search warrant for McCollum's residence.

         An officer requested Alberts to give him her phone for examination. The officer discovered pictures of the orange laptop on Alberts' phone and the text messages Anthony had sent McCollum. Law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant for Alberts' residence. The officers discovered a large bag that Alberts identified as Anthony's bag. Inside the bag were GPS devices, phone chargers, cords, and other items that were consistent with items reported stolen from cars in the neighborhood surrounding the Allister Apartments complex the night of 13 May 2013. When police took Defendant in for questioning, they requested he hand over his shoes, a pair of red and black Nike tennis shoes. A grand jury returned a true bill of indictment for the first-degree murder of Huggins-Jones against Defendant on 3 June 2013.

         Defendant's capital murder trial began on 4 January 2016. Prior to Defendant's trial, Anthony pled guilty to first-degree murder and received a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Defendant stipulated at trial to being "involved with the other co-defendants in breaking into cars and was with the co-defendants before and ...

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