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State v. Thomas

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

October 15, 2019

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
DANNY LAMONT THOMAS

          Heard in the Court of Appeals 19 September 2019

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 30 August 2017 by Judge Douglas B. Sasser in Columbus County Nos. 06 CRS 6250-51, 6257-59, 6261-62, 6254-67 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Jonathan P. Babb, for the State.

          Rudolf Widenhouse, by M. Gordon Widenhouse, Jr., for defendant.

          ARROWOOD, JUDGE.

         Danny Lamont Thomas ("defendant") appeals from judgments sentencing him to four consecutive life sentences without parole and additional sentences totaling a minimum of 385 months to a maximum of 623 months in prison. On appeal, defendant contends the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress, motion to dismiss, and in admitting certain evidence under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8C-1, Rule 404(b). After careful review, we affirm.

         I. Background

         Defendant was originally tried and convicted of a number of crimes on 5 May 2011. State v. Thomas, 230 N.C. 127, 748 S.E.2d 620 (2013). On appeal, we reversed and remanded for a new trial upon concluding defendant was denied his right to remove a juror with a peremptory challenge. Id. at 133, 748 S.E.2d at 624. Defendant was re-tried and then convicted on 30 August 2017 of four counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, one count of robbery with a firearm, one count of attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of second-degree kidnapping, one count of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, and one count of first-degree burglary for a string of offenses committed on 20 August 2005, 10 September 2005, and 5 November 2005.

         The State's evidence at trial tended to show the following facts. The Durham Police Department issued an arrest warrant for defendant in connection with a homicide committed in Durham in July 2005. After noticing similarities between the Durham homicide and three homicides committed in Columbus County, the Columbus County Sheriff's Office and North Carolina SBI agents also began searching for defendant. U.S. Marshals assisted Durham police officers in tracking a phone number associated with defendant that was listed under the name "Markeeta Crutchfield." On 8 December 2005, Deputy Steven Warden of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office in Colorado went to 2305 Lexington Village Lane in Colorado Springs to assist the U.S. Marshals in apprehending a fugitive from North Carolina. Deputy Warden and other law enforcement set up surveillance of the residence, which was owned by Yvette Jurnett ("Jurnett"). When Jurnett arrived home, the deputies asked if they could speak to her and she agreed. They showed her a picture of defendant and asked if he was in her home. She told them it looks like the man staying in her house but she knew him as "Santana." Jurnett gave Deputy Warden consent to search her house, adding "[i]f this person is inside of my home, I want them out." Jurnett also told the officers no one other than defendant was in her home, and she had not seen any weapons.

         Deputy Warden and other deputies entered the residence through a garage to locate defendant. Upon reaching a stairwell that led down to a basement, they heard a male voice speak in the basement. The deputies announced their presence and ordered the man to come out. Those commands were repeated a few times, with no response. Deputy Warden then called defendant by name, to which defendant responded he was not coming out. Deputy Warden exited the residence and requested the Colorado Springs Police Department Tactical Unit be sent to the scene. Sergeant Jason Hess, still standing in the hallway near the basement, used a mirror to look into the basement and saw defendant holding a rifle. Defendant then yelled, "Back the f*** up; Don't come down here; It's going to be a bloodbath if you guys try to come get me." He also informed the deputies he was loaded with ammunition. The Tactical Unit later arrived to relieve the Sheriff's Office and was able to apprehend defendant.

         Despite having the homeowner's consent to search the premises, the officers sought and obtained a search warrant. Upon searching the basement, officers found an SKS rifle, a .45 caliber Ruger handgun, loose bullets, and a backpack which contained 9mm and other bullets, two rolls of duct tape, and a two-way radio. In a bedroom on the second floor of the home, the officers found a duffel bag containing a black stocking cap, a blue-and-white bandana, a red-and-white bandana, and a white-red-and-black foam hockey mask. In addition, they also found a North Carolina driver's license with defendant's name on it in a suitcase.

         Defendant was arrested and charged with a string of crimes committed in Columbus County. These included the attempted murder of Terrence Rowell ("Rowell") on 20 August 2005; the murder of Craig Williams ("Williams") and kidnapping of Centia McLeod ("McLeod") on 10 September 2005; and the murders of Dennis Inman, Regina Inman (collectively, "Inman"), and Anthony Martin ("Martin") on 5 November 2005. Testimony about the Rowell and Williams crimes revealed one of the perpetrators was a black man wearing a Jason-style hockey mask with holes in it, similar to the one seized from defendant in Colorado. The man in the hockey mask who attacked Rowell and Williams had a TEC-9 gun with holes in it. Police officers who investigated the Rowell scene found a fired, 9mm Luger shell casing, which was similar to a live round seized in Colorado. Jacqueline Battle testified defendant visited her house on 3 September 2005, and was carrying a gun with holes in it.

         Forensic examination showed some 9mm shell casings from the Rowell, Williams, and Inman shootings were all fired from the same gun. The .45 shell casings from the Inman murders also matched a .45 cartridge found near Williams. In addition, Rowell and Martin were both bound with duct tape similar to the duct tape seized in Colorado. The DNA profile generated from a bloody impression on the roll of duct tape seized in Colorado matched the DNA profile of the bloodstain of Martin. Expert testimony revealed a profile from bloodstain cuttings from the hockey mask seized in Colorado matched the DNA profile from Williams.

         Over defendant's timely objection, evidence of two other crimes believed to be committed by defendant on 26 December 2004 and 15 July 2005 was also presented at trial for purposes of proving identity. Testimony about the incidents revealed they were committed by a man in a white Jason mask with holes in it, and that bullets from the two crime scenes were fired from the same .45-caliber gun.

         On 1 August 2017, defendant filed a motion to suppress all the evidence seized in Colorado as a result of the installation and use of a pen register device on the cell phone he was using. On 14 August 2017, the court orally denied the motion and signed a detailed written order nunc pro tunc on 5 October 2017. Defendant presented no evidence at trial, but moved to dismiss all the charges at the close of all the evidence. The jury found defendant guilty of all charges. He was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences without parole for the four murders; 127 months to 162 months for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury and second-degree kidnapping; 117 months to 150 months for first-degree burglary and second-degree kidnapping; and 251 months to 311 months for attempted murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and first-degree kidnapping. Defendant gave notice of appeal in open court.

         II. Discussion

         On appeal, defendant argues the trial court erred by: (1) denying the motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to an unconstitutional search based on cell phone information showing defendant's location that was obtained without a warrant; (2) denying the motion to dismiss the charge of kidnapping McLeod where the evidence did not show she was confined or removed beyond that necessary to rob her with a dangerous weapon; and (3) admitting evidence about a prior, violent incident for purposes of proving his identity, absent any proof of the defendant's involvement. We address each argument in turn below.

         A. Motion to Suppress

         Defendant first argues the trial court erred in denying the motion to suppress evidence seized pursuant to an unconstitutional search based on cell phone information showing defendant's location that was obtained without a warrant. For the following reasons, we reject defendant's contentions.

         "Our review of a trial court's denial of a motion to suppress is 'strictly limited to determining whether the trial judge's underlying findings of fact are supported by competent evidence, in which event they are conclusively binding on appeal, and whether those factual findings in turn support the judge's ultimate conclusions of law.'" State v. Jordan, 242 N.C.App. 464, 469, 776 S.E.2d 515, 519 (2015) (quoting State v. Cooke, 306 N.C. 132, 134, 291 S.E.2d 618, 619 (1982)). "The trial court's conclusions of law . . . are fully reviewable on appeal." State v. Hughes, 353 N.C. 200, 208, 539 S.E.2d 625, 631 (2000).

         On 1 August 2017, defendant filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained from the installation and use of a pen register device on defendant's cell phone without a warrant. He argued the warrantless location tracking constituted an unreasonable search in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. On 5 October 2017, the trial court entered an order nunc pro tunc to 14 August 2017 ...


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