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State v. Denton

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

June 4, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 13 March 2019.

          Appeal by defendant from judgment entered on or about 22 September 2017 by Judge Mark E. Powell in Superior Court, Madison County No. 15CRS000352.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Kathryne E. Hathcock, for the State.

          Glover & Petersen, P.A., by Ann B. Petersen, for defendant-appellant.

          STROUD, Judge.

         Defendant appeals his conviction for felony death by vehicle. The trial court erred by admitting lay opinion testimony identifying defendant as the driver of the vehicle at the time of an accident in which an occupant of the car was killed where the expert accident reconstruction analyst was unable to form an expert opinion based upon the same information available to the lay witness. We therefore reverse defendant's conviction and grant defendant a new trial.

         I. Background

         On 1 August 2014, defendant and Danielle Mitchell were both in a car when it ran off the road and wrecked; both were ejected from the car and Ms. Mitchell died at the scene from her injuries. Defendant was indicted for felony death by vehicle. The primary factual issue at trial was whether defendant was driving at the time of the accident.

         The State's evidence showed that on the morning of 1 August 2014, defendant and Ms. Mitchell decided to go to Asheville to find some "[w]hite lightning" liquor in a "[k]ind of an old and red, burgundy looking" car that "might've been a Dodge" that defendant drove. Defendant and Ms. Mitchell spent time together often during the year preceding the wreck, either at her home or the home of Ms. Mitchell's father, Mr. Daniel Seay, where they would "hang out, talk . . . drink, smoke, watch football games, baseball games." Ms. Mitchell and her father lived about a quarter of a mile from each other, and defendant's understanding was that Ms. Mitchell did not have her own car.

         On 1 August 2014, defendant and Ms. Mitchell left before lunch and defendant was driving as they left Mr. Seay's house, and Mr. Seay testified that he had "never seen nobody else ever drive [defendant's] car." Mr. Seay recalled that "[defendant] wouldn't let nobody behind the wheel of that car[, ]" and "[t]here was a few times that he, he had to move to let somebody out, and he would always move the car. Nobody touched his car." Mr. Seay testified that his daughter, Ms. Mitchell, had ridden in the car before but she always sat in the front passenger seat.

         Shortly before 10:00 p.m. that evening, defendant and Ms. Mitchell called Mr. Seay from a gas station and told him that the car was overheating. Defendant told Mr. Seay, "She's flipping out," and reassured Mr. Seay they were all right and would "be there in a few minutes." Shortly thereafter, Mr. Seay heard sirens close to the house. Around 10:10 p.m., Trooper Jason Fox of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol received a dispatch call regarding a vehicle crash at U.S. 25-70 near the Brush Creek area. After arriving at 10:22 p.m., Trooper Fox spoke with EMS who advised that two occupants had been ejected from the vehicle. One of the occupants, later identified as Ms. Mitchell, was already deceased. Defendant suffered from a severe head injury in the accident and had no memory of what happened on the day of the accident.

         Defendant was also seriously injured, and EMS called for a helicopter to transport him to the hospital. EMS stabilized defendant's neck in a "C" collar and placed him on a backboard. While EMS was working with defendant, he was screaming, hyperventilating, and combative; he was ultimately sedated for flight.

         Since the crash resulted in a fatality, Trooper Fox notified his supervisor. Trooper Fox also found a witness to the wreck, Mr. David Martin. Mr. Martin reported that he was traveling on the highway toward Hot Springs when an "orange- ish, reddish" car came up behind him "extremely fast" such that Mr. Martin "did not see it coming before it was basically on top of [him]." Mr. Martin estimated that the car was traveling twice as fast as he was. The car passed Mr. Martin on the left side in a no-passing zone, "started . . . a left turn and . . . ran off the right side of the road, and when it did, dust and rocks and stuff started flying." At that point, Mr. Martin saw "just headlights and taillights. Looked like [the car] was rolling, flipping." Mr. Martin stopped immediately to help and call 911. Mr. Martin saw a woman, apparently deceased, and a man further up the road, moving a little but incoherent.

         Troopers Sorrells and Carver, along with First Sergeant Bray, went to the scene to assist Trooper Fox with his investigation and completion of the field sketch. Trooper Fox took photographs of the scene. The vehicle involved in the crash, a red or burgundy 2001 Dodge Neon registered to defendant's mother, was off the left shoulder of the roadway facing towards Hot Springs. Trooper Fox found a sealed beer bottle by Ms. Mitchell's body, a Miller Highlife can and an empty Corona box in the debris path, and Corona beer bottle caps inside the vehicle and near Ms. Mitchell's body. Trooper Fox believed the crash involved alcohol use because of "the bottle caps located in the vehicle, the still-closed beer bottle that was located in the debris path . . . there was a ...

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