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State v. Bowman

Supreme Court of North Carolina

August 16, 2019

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
DUVAL LAMONT BOWMAN

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 14 May 2019

         Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, 818 S.E.2d 718 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2018), vacating a judgment entered on 27 July 2016 by Judge Richard S. Gottlieb in Superior Court, Forsyth County, and remanding for a new trial. On 24 October 2018, the Court allowed the State's petition for discretionary review of additional issues. Heard in the Supreme Court on 14 May 2019 in session in the Pitt County Courthouse in the City of Greenville pursuant to section 18B.8 of Chapter 57 of the 2017 Session Laws of the State of North Carolina.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Joseph L. Hyde, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

          Richard Croutharmel for defendant-appellee.

          EARLS, JUSTICE

         At defendant Duval Bowman's trial for the 2014 murder of Anthony Johnson, Lakenda Malachi was the only witness to provide direct evidence of Bowman's presence at the scene. Bowman sought to impeach Malachi's testimony by introducing evidence that Malachi was in plea negotiations over pending charges against her and that she would receive favorable treatment for her testimony against Bowman, but the trial court sustained objections to defense counsel's questions. Bowman was found guilty of attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, possession of a firearm by a felon, and the first-degree murder of Anthony Johnson. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

         Defendant argued at the Court of Appeals that the trial court committed reversible error by preventing his counsel from adequately cross-examining Malachi regarding the pending charges. The Court of Appeals' majority agreed with defendant, holding that the trial court committed constitutional error by restricting defendant's cross-examination of Malachi and that the error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Bowman, 818 S.E.2d 718, 719 ( N.C. Ct. App. 2018). Judge Dillon agreed that the trial court erred by limiting the cross-examination of Malachi but concluded the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id. at 722 (Dillon, J., dissenting). The State filed its appeal of right based on Judge Dillon's dissenting opinion. We must now determine whether the trial court violated defendant's Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him by limiting defendant's cross-examination of the State's principal witness and whether that error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Because we agree that the trial court committed prejudicial error, we affirm the Court of Appeals' holding and its order that defendant receive a new trial.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Facts

         Defendant, Johnson, and Malachi were all involved in the illicit drug business. Around the time of his murder, Johnson was engaged to Malachi and they lived together with their four-year-old son. At trial, the State presented no physical evidence linking defendant to the shooting but argued that Malachi's testimony established defendant's guilt. Defendant also testified at trial, denying his involvement in the murder, and raising the suggestion that Malachi may have murdered Johnson. Necessarily either defendant or Malachi must have been misrepresenting essential facts about Johnson's death.

         According to Malachi's trial testimony, around 3:00 a.m. on 23 February 2014, defendant went to Malachi's house to confront Johnson about money he owed defendant. Once in the living room where Johnson and Malachi were on the couch, defendant asked Malachi, "Where your gun at?" Defendant was referring to Malachi's 9-millimeter, semiautomatic pistol. Malachi told defendant she had her gun on her, but she was lying to him. Malachi then looked on the shelf in the living room where she normally kept her weapon, but did not see it there. Malachi testified that she left the living room to look for the gun but turned around and saw defendant wearing white latex gloves and holding a gun in each hand. Defendant was standing over Johnson and stated, "Ya'll did me dirty." Malachi turned and ran to her bedroom and heard shots being fired as she ran away. She also heard defendant rattling things in the living room. Malachi then ran to the couple's son's room, locked the door, and hid in the closet. The couple's son was asleep in his bedroom when defendant kicked in the door then walked towards the son's bed. Upon seeing this, Malachi came out of the closet and told defendant that she would find the money for him. The couple's son continued to sleep throughout the encounter.

         Malachi asked Johnson where the money was before defendant began stomping on Johnson as he lay motionless on the floor. As Malachi looked for the money, defendant hit her with the two handguns and threatened to shoot her in the feet. Defendant said he was going to kill Johnson and walked into the kitchen. Seeing her chance to escape, Malachi ran out of the house and hid near her neighbor's house until she saw what appeared to be a green station wagon drive away from her house. Malachi then rang her neighbor's doorbell until they responded. Once inside, Malachi asked to use their telephone and made calls to two different male friends whom she hoped would come pick up her son before police arrived. The neighbors called the police after Malachi finished her calls.

         Johnson was pronounced dead when police arrived. He had been shot once in the leg and twice in the back. A revolver was used in the killing, as well as a 9-millimeter, semiautomatic pistol, but the police found no guns. They did find a box for a 9-millimeter Glock handgun in a shoe box on the top shelf of the closet in the master bedroom, along with various rounds of ammunition, a handgun magazine, and a receipt for the purchase of the gun. A gunshot residue test on Malachi's hands showed some amounts of lead, antimony, and barium but overall was an inconclusive result. However, Malachi had washed her hands while at the neighbor's house. Bowman was apprehended three weeks later in New York and denied any involvement in Johnson's death.

         At trial, defendant denied murdering Johnson. Defendant also testified that Malachi and Johnson had a violent relationship and that Malachi carried a gun. Malachi was jealous of Johnson because he cheated on her and she would become physically violent with Johnson. She was particularly violent when she drank alcohol. Malachi admitted that she drank alcohol the night of Johnson's murder. A few weeks before the murder, Malachi was upset with Johnson over another woman who was at a liquor house with him.

         On the night in question, defendant went to a liquor house around 11:00 p.m. Defendant then met a friend named Lorenzo Peace around 11:30 p.m. Peace had defendant drop him off at a friend's house before defendant drove back to the liquor house in Peace's vehicle. Around midnight, defendant left the liquor house to conduct a drug transaction with a man named Jay. Afterwards, defendant returned to the liquor house. Defendant met Peace at Bill's Truck Stop at about 5:00 a.m. before returning home. Sometime after arriving home, defendant received a phone call alerting him that Johnson was dead. Defendant fled to New York after receiving threatening messages and learning he was accused of Johnson's murder.

         B. Pretrial Proceedings

         The State filed a motion in limine to preclude the defense from questioning Malachi about her pending drug trafficking charges in Guilford County. Defendant objected to the State's request, arguing that there was an e-mail exchange between the Guilford County prosecutor handling Malachi's drug charges and the Forsyth County prosecutor involved in defendant's murder trial. Based on the e-mail exchange concerning a possible plea deal, the trial court ruled that defendant could question Malachi about the pending drug charges, as well as what she knew about any potential deals or favorable treatment as a result of her testimony at trial.

         C. Trial

         During cross-examination, defense counsel questioned Malachi regarding several drug charges pending against her including: one count of trafficking in methamphetamine, one count of conspiracy to traffic in methamphetamine, one count of trafficking in marijuana, and one count of conspiracy to traffic in marijuana. Malachi admitted that these charges were pending against her in Guilford County and admitted that she was aware that each of the charges involving methamphetamine carried a sentence of 90 months to 120 months in prison. Similarly, Malachi acknowledged that each of the charges involving marijuana carried a mandatory sentence of 25 to 30 months in prison. Defense counsel then questioned Malachi about a possible plea deal.

Q. What, if anything, have you been offered from the State at this point regarding those pending charges?
A. I don't know nothing about that.
Q. So nothing has been finalized in Guilford County?
[PROSECUTOR]: Objection.
THE COURT: Sustained.
[ ]
Q. You're not aware of any current plea offer at this point. Correct?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Have you - - are you aware that there are such things as plea offers?
[PROSECUTOR]: Objection.
THE COURT: I'll allow that one question.
[ ]
Q. Ma'am?
A. Yes, ...

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