in the Court of Appeals 9 May 2019.
by Defendant from judgment entered 29 March 2018 by Judge
Wayland J. Sermons, Jr., in Pasquotank County Superior Court.
Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney
General Adren L. Harris, for the State-Appellee.
Rawls for Defendant-Appellant.
appeals from judgment entered upon a jury's verdict
finding him guilty of first-degree murder. Defendant contends
the trial court plainly erred by admitting the expert opinion
testimony of a forensic firearms examiner because the opinion
testimony did not satisfy the standards for expert opinion
under the North Carolina Rule of Evidence 702, Daubert v.
Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993),
and State v. McGrady, 368 N.C. 880, 787 S.E.2d 1
(2016). We discern no error.
January 2016, Defendant Harold Clyde Griffin, Jr., was
indicted on the charge of first-degree murder for the killing
of Timothy Leon Stokley, III. On 26 March 2018,
Defendant's case came on for trial upon his not guilty
plea. That same day, the jury returned a verdict finding
Defendant guilty of first-degree murder. The trial court
entered judgment upon the jury's verdict, sentencing
Defendant to life in prison without the possibility of
parole. From entry of judgment, Defendant gave oral notice of
evidence presented at trial tended to show the following: On
the night of 30 December 2015, several individuals, including
Defendant, Jessica Skinner, and Lela Reid, decided to go out
partying. The party began at Defendant's home, where they
hung out and drank alcohol in Defendant's front yard.
Skinner and Reid noticed a "dark-skinned man with
dreads" speaking with Defendant; they soon learned that
the man was Stokley.
20 minutes after introducing Skinner and Reid to Stokley,
Defendant asked Skinner to give Stokley a ride home. Skinner
sat in the driver's seat of her Trailblazer SUV; Reid sat
in the front, passenger-side seat; Defendant sat in the back,
passenger-side seat; and Stokley sat in the back, driver-side
seat behind Skinner.
point, Skinner pulled the Trailblazer off of the road and
stopped next to a field. Skinner and Reid had consumed quite
a few beers and needed to use the bathroom. Skinner noticed
that Defendant and Stokley had both stepped out of the
Trailblazer. Skinner had not fully exited the Trailblazer to
use the bathroom when she heard three gun shots ring out.
Reid heard gun shots, "a thump," and Stokley's
stepped back into the Trailblazer, and sat behind Skinner in
the back, driver-side seat. Defendant pressed a gun into
Skinner's side and demanded that she follow his
directions. Stokley did not return to the Trailblazer.
Defendant instructed Skinner to drive around for a while, and
then said to Skinner and Reid, "Instead of one body it
will be three."
instructed Skinner to drive past the area where Stokley's
body lay, and then demanded that Skinner drive Defendant back
to his home. Skinner complied, drove Defendant back to his
property, and watched Defendant remove his Army fatigue
jacket and walk off into the darkness. Skinner and Reid left
Defendant's property and returned to Skinner's
apartment; neither woman contacted law enforcement.
before midnight, Andrea Smith Jones spotted something in the
middle of the road, and noticed a pair of shoes sticking out
from underneath it. Jones then realized that it was a body
lying in the middle of the road. When she arrived home, Jones
grabbed her husband and the two of them drove back to the
scene. When her husband realized that the body was that of a
dead human, he called 911.
responders from the Newland Fire Department and Pasquotank
County Sheriff's Office arrived at the scene and found
Stokley's body. Upon inspection, the first responders
determined that Stokley was unresponsive and had no pulse.
Crime scene investigators recovered five cartridge casings
from the area around Stokley's body and collected two
bullets from Stokley's hair and body.
the responding officers were still on the scene, dispatch
informed them that a suspicious vehicle had been seen leaving
the area. Sergeant Steven Judd left the scene and drove
around for a short period of time, but did not see a vehicle.
As he returned to the scene, Judd watched a vehicle stop at a
stop sign on Campground Road and then pull out in front of
him; Judd ran the vehicle's tag, which came back as
registered to Skinner. Judd did not initiate a traffic stop
of Skinner's vehicle, but instead returned to the crime
4 January 2017, Skinner and Reid were contacted by the
sheriff's office. Detectives separately interviewed
Skinner and Reid, both of whom provided details of the
incident during the interview and testified to those details
at trial. Based on what detectives learned from Skinner and
Reid, the sheriff's office obtained a search warrant for
Defendant's home and property on Campground Road. On 5
January 2017, officers executed the search warrant and found
a camouflage jacket in a field on the adjacent property; the
jacket was wrapped around a firearm and covered with field
brush. At trial, Skinner and Reid both identified the
camouflage jacket as belonging to Defendant, and Skinner
stated that Defendant "had it on the night of the
shooting." Investigators sent the firearm, bullets, and
cartridge casings to the North Carolina State Crime Lab (the
"Crime Lab") to be analyzed.
Fields, an agent in the Firearms Unit at the Crime Lab, was
accepted at trial without objection as an expert in forensic
firearms examinations and analysis. She testified that based
upon her examination of the firearm recovered from the field
adjacent to Defendant's property and the cartridge
casings recovered from the crime scene, it was her opinion
that the cartridge casings came from the recovered firearm.
sole argument on appeal is that the trial court erred by
admitting Fields' expert opinion testimony that the
cartridge casings found at the crime scene came from the
firearm recovered from the field adjacent to Defendant's
property. Defendant specifically argues that Fields'
testimony did not satisfy the reliability standards for
expert opinion under Rule of Evidence 702, Daubert,
acknowledges his failure to object at trial to the admission
of Fields' testimony and, pursuant to N.C. R. App. P.
10(a)(4), specifically argues on appeal that the trial
court's admission of this testimony constitutes plain
error. "Under the plain error rule, defendant must
convince this Court not only that there was error, but that
absent the error, the jury probably would have reached a
different result." State v. Jordan,
333 N.C. 431, 440, 426 S.E.2d 692, 697 (1993) (citation
the trial court's role to decide preliminary questions
concerning the qualifications of experts to testify or the
admissibility of expert testimony. N.C. Gen. Stat. §
8C-1, Rule 104(a) (2018). Rule 702 of the North Carolina
Rules of Evidence governs testimony by experts. Pertinent to
Defendant's argument, Rule 702 provides as follows:
(a) If scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge
will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or
to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an
expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or
education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion, or
otherwise, if all of the following apply:
(1) The testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data.
(2) The testimony is the product of reliable principles and
(3) The witness has applied the principles and methods
reliably to the facts of the case.
N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8C-1, Rule 702(a) (2018). Prongs
(a)(1), (2), and (3) together constitute the reliability
inquiry discussed in Daubert, General Electric
Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136 (1997), and Kumho Tire
Co., Ltd. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999).
McGrady, 368 N.C. at 890, 787 S.E.2d at 9. "The
primary focus of the inquiry is on the reliability of the
witness's principles and methodology, not on the
conclusions that they generate[.]" Id.
(internal quotation marks and citations omitted).
In the context of scientific testimony, Daubert
articulated five factors from a nonexhaustive list that can
have a bearing on reliability: (1) "whether a theory or
technique . . . can be (and has been) tested"; (2)
"whether the theory or technique has been subjected to
peer review and publication"; (3) the theory or
technique's "known or potential rate of error";
(4) "the existence and maintenance of standards
controlling the technique's operation"; and (5)
whether the theory or technique has achieved "general
acceptance" in its field. Daubert, 509 U.S. at
593-94. When a trial court considers testimony based on
"technical or other specialized knowledge," N.C. R.
Evid. 702(a), it should likewise focus on the reliability of
that testimony, Kumho, 526 U.S. at 147-49. The trial
court should consider the factors articulated in
Daubert when "they are reasonable measures of
the reliability of expert testimony." Id. at
152. Those factors are part of a "flexible"
inquiry, Daubert, 509 U.S. at 594, so they do not
form "a definitive checklist or test," id.
at 593. And the trial court is free to consider other factors
that may help assess reliability given "the nature of
the issue, the expert's particular expertise, and the
subject of his testimony." Kumho, 526 U.S. at
McGrady, 368 N.C. at 890-91, 787 S.E.2d at 9-10.
courts are "afforded wide latitude of discretion when
making a determination about the admissibility of expert
testimony" under Rule 702. State v.
Bullard, 312 N.C. 129, 140, 322 S.E.2d 370, 376
(1984). Accordingly, "a trial court's ruling on the
admissibility of expert testimony 'will not be reversed
on appeal absent a showing of abuse of discretion.'"
State v. Godwin, 369 N.C. 604, 610-11, 800 S.E.2d
47, 51 (2017) (quoting McGrady, 368 N.C. at 893, 787
S.E.2d at 11) (other citations omitted).
entirety of Defendant's substantive argument on appeal is
In the present case, Fields testified to her opinion that the
items recovered from the crime scene were fired from the gun
recovered from the property adjacent to [Defendant's]
home. The State's evidence, however, does not establish
that "(1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts
or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable
principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the
principles and methods reliably to the facts of the
case." [McGrady, 368 N.C. at 885, 787 S.E.2d at
6]. She did testify to her training in firearms