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State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

October 1, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 4 September 2019.

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 13 June 2018 by Judge Henry W. Hight Jr. in Vance County No. 07 CRS 50717, 50725 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General M.A. Kelly Chambers, for the State.

          Marilyn G. Ozer for defendant-appellant.

          TYSON, JUDGE.

         Rodney McDonald Williams ("Defendant") appeals from judgments entered after a jury's verdict found him guilty of first degree murder and guilty of attempted murder. We find no error.

         I. Background

         Ms. Shirley Venable ("Venable") was awakened to someone calling her name outside her home during the early morning of 27 February 2007. Venable testified she heard Defendant say "Ma, open the door." Venable is Defendant's mother. When Venable opened her door, a friend, Leo Ziegler, Jr., ("Ziegler") ran inside her house. Defendant stood at the doorway and began firing a handgun. Venable was shot in her left side and Ziegler was shot in the chest.

         Venable and Ziegler attempted to flee through the house, but Venable was shot again in her left hip and Ziegler was shot in the back of his head. Ziegler's head wound was fatal. After Venable was shot in her hip and fell to the floor, Defendant shot Venable a final time in her right leg. Venable was able to wrestle the gun from Defendant.

         Defendant fled Venable's home. First responders arrived and found Venable covered in blood at her backdoor and Ziegler's body in the kitchen. Officers found Defendant hiding under a nearby automobile and arrested him.

         On 1 March 2007, the trial court determined Defendant needed emergency medical care for mental illness and issued a safekeeping order. On 12 March 2007, Defendant was indicted on one count of first degree murder of Ziegler and one count of attempted murder of Venable.

         A. Dr. Williams' Evaluation

         Dr. Alton Williams ("Dr. Williams"), (no relation to Defendant), first interviewed Defendant on 3 July 2007. Dr. Williams conducted follow up interviews with Defendant on 7 January 2008 and 10 April 2008. In preparing his report, Dr. Williams also reviewed 190 documents related to Defendant. During these interviews, Defendant told Dr. Williams he considered deceased Ethiopian leader, Haile Selassie, to be a god and Defendant wanted to be his right-hand-man. Defendant insisted his deceased father had connections to rap music artists and producers. He also discussed his imaginary girlfriend, Champagne.

         When Dr. Williams inquired about the pending charges, Defendant stated the worst outcome of his case would be the death penalty, but because of his pending tort claim he would not receive a death sentence because it was an act of Congress. Defendant explained the current charges were a prerequisite for him to prevail in the tort claim. Defendant stated he would be receiving his money from his tort claim any day and would be going home.

         Dr. Williams reported Defendant began using marijuana at age 16, smoking six to seven "blunts" daily. Defendant "first used alcohol at seven or eight years old, but became a regular drinker when he was 16 years old." Defendant reported he would drink "four to five 40 ounce beers a day." Defendant self-reported he used crack cocaine twice a week from 2005 through his arrest.

         Defendant testified that while incarcerated for a prior conviction, he purchased a state tort claim for $5.00 from another inmate named Lock Jordan. Defendant asserted his tort claim was against the State, but required federal government assistance to succeed on his claim. Defendant also stated he received money from a rap music "record deal."

         On 7 July 2008, Dr. Williams submitted a forensic psychiatric evaluation. Dr. Williams diagnosed Defendant with schizophrenia, paranoid type and substance dependence. Dr. Williams concluded that Defendant exhibited deficits, which impaired his ability to rationally and factually understand the trial process. Specifically, Defendant's delusion that his current criminal charges were related to a tort claim against the State. Dr. Williams further concluded Defendant "does not have the capacity to assist counsel in preparing and implementing a defense."

         B. Dr. Vance's Evaluation

         In September 2008, Defendant was evaluated by Dr. Charles Vance, M.D., PhD. ("Dr. Vance"). Defendant continued to assert his beliefs in his tort claim and added that other patients were "messing" with him and that he could hear whispered threats. Dr. Vance reported that on one occasion Defendant became violent with hospital staff. On 30 October 2008, Dr. Vance concluded Defendant was not malingering and he met the criteria for a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Dr. Vance further concluded Defendant's ability to participate meaningfully in trial "was substantially impaired by his ongoing mental illness."

         On 22 December 2008, the court found and concluded Defendant did not have the legal capacity to assist counsel in preparing and implementing a defense to the pending charges. On 8 September 2009, the trial court issued an order finding Defendant incompetent to stand trial. The following day, Defendant's counsel and the State entered into a stipulation that Defendant was incompetent to proceed to trial.

         C. Dr. Messer's Evaluation

         In late September 2009, Defendant's competency to stand trial was reassessed. Dr. Julia Messer, Ph.D ("Dr. Messer") examined Defendant and prepared the report. Again, she diagnosed Defendant with paranoid schizophrenia. Defendant told the staff that strangers could "derail his lawsuit by standing too close to him and sneezing." Defendant further reported that former President George W. Bush, then President Barack Obama, and talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, were aware of his situation. Defendant felt his mother may have been a "witch at various times in the past."

         Defendant reported having the following hallucinations: seeing shadows that were always present, hearing his deceased father breathing heavily in his closet, and seeing a "big parrot made out of fog." Defendant also maintained his belief that in order to sue the State he had to kill somebody. On 7 October 2009, Dr. Messer found Defendant's test scores and behavior were consistent with paranoia, and not attempts to feign or exaggerate mental illness. She concluded Defendant was not competent to stand trial.

         On 9 October 2009, the State dismissed the charges with leave, due to Defendant being incapable of proceeding to trial. On 10 March 2014, the State entered a Notice of Reinstatement of Charges.

         D. Dr. Vance's Re-Evaluation

         In October 2015, Defendant reported thoughts of hanging himself because purportedly "the devil told him to hurt himself." Defendant was prescribed olanzapine, an antipsychotic medication, which appeared to alleviate his psychotic symptoms. Dr. Vance re-evaluated Defendant. During this examination, Defendant did not raise his "tort claim" as a reason for his current legal situation. Defendant stated "it ain't related" to his current pending criminal charges.

         Dr. Vance reported Defendant appeared embarrassed by and dismissive of his past claims. Dr. Vance found Defendant's "presentation during this current evaluation was wholly unexpected." Dr. Vance further found Defendant "completely disavows those previous psychotic beliefs and shows a very good orientation to the reality of the case, even though he is [presently] receiving lower dose of antipsychotic medication." Dr. Vance issued a report concluding Defendant was competent to proceed at trial on 4 November 2015. On 4 February 2016 the State entered another Notice of Reinstatement of Charges.

         E. Dr. Blanks' Evaluation

         On 21 July 2016, Dr. Richard Blanks, J.D., M.D., an Adult and Forensic Psychiatrist, ("Dr. Blanks") met with Defendant at the Craven Correctional Institution. Dr. Blanks sent a letter to Defendant's counsel stating that he had also found Defendant was competent to stand trial on 10 October 2016. Upon joint motions regarding Defendant's competency from Defendant's counsel and the State, the trial court issued an order finding Defendant competent to stand trial on 23 October 2016.

         On 9 November 2016 Defendant was found in need of protective custody, due to being an escape risk with anger problems. As the Vance County jail did not have proper facilities to take care of him, a safekeeping order was issued. On 7 December 2017 a further safekeeping order was issued on the grounds that Defendant required mental health treatment, psychiatric care and medication. On 20 April 2018, another safekeeping order was issued due to Defendant's unpredictable outbursts including violent assaults.

         Defendant was tried 13 June 2018 through 14 June 2018. Defendant testified and offered evidence at his trial. The jury returned a verdict and found Defendant guilty of first-degree murder and attempted murder. Defendant was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence without parole for the first-degree murder conviction of Ziegler, and not less than 480 months and not more than 585 months for attempted murder of Venable. Defendant gave oral notice of appeal from both judgments.

         II. Jurisdiction

         This Court possesses jurisdiction pursuant to N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 7A-27(b) and 15A-1444(a) (2017).

         III. Issue

         Defendant's sole argument on appeal asserts the trial court erred by not sua sponte ordering a competency assessment to protect his constitutional rights to due process.

         IV. Analysis

         A. Standard of Review

         "[A] person whose mental condition is such that he lacks the capacity to understand the nature and object of the proceedings against him, to consult with counsel, and to assist in preparing his defense may not be subjected to a trial." Drope v. Missouri, 420 U.S. 162, 171, 43 L.Ed.2d 103, 112-113 (1975). "[T]he conviction of an accused person while he is legally incompetent violates due process[.]" State v. Taylor, 298 N.C. 405, 410, 259 S.E.2d 502, 505 (1979) (citations omitted). "The standard of review for alleged violations of constitutional rights is de novo." State v. Graham, 200 N.C.App. 204, 214, 683 S.E.2d 437, 444 (2009) (citation omitted).

         B. Competency

         Defendant asserts the trial court's failure to sua sponte order a competency evaluation violates his constitutional right to due process. N.C. ...

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