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State v. Griffin

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

October 15, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 9 May 2019.

          Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 29 March 2018 by Judge Wayland J. Sermons, Jr., in Pasquotank County Superior Court. No. 16CRS050016

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Adren L. Harris, for the State-Appellee.

          Leslie Rawls for Defendant-Appellant.

          COLLINS, JUDGE.

         Defendant 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.

         I. Procedural History

         On 11 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 appeal.

         II. Factual Background

         The 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.

         Approximately 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.

         At some 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 scream.

         Defendant 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."

         Defendant 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.

         Just 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.

         First 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.

         While 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 scene.

         Around 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.

         Elizabeth 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.

         III. Discussion

         Defendant's 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, and McGrady.[1]

         Defendant 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 omitted).

         It is 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 methods.
(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 150.

McGrady, 368 N.C. at 890-91, 787 S.E.2d at 9-10.

         Trial 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).

         The entirety of Defendant's substantive argument on appeal is as follows:

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 ...

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