215 S.E.2d 607 (N.C. 1975), 127, State v. Woodson

Docket Nº:127.
Citation:215 S.E.2d 607, 287 N.C. 578
Party Name:STATE of North Carolina v. James Tyrone WOODSON and Luby Waxton.
Case Date:June 26, 1975
Court:Supreme Court of North Carolina

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215 S.E.2d 607 (N.C. 1975)

287 N.C. 578

STATE of North Carolina


James Tyrone WOODSON and Luby Waxton.

No. 127.

Supreme Court of North Carolina.

June 26, 1975

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[287 N.C. 590] Rufus L. Edmisten, Atty. Gen., and James E. Magner, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen., Raleigh, for the State.

Edward H. McCormick, Lillington, for James Tyrone Woodson, defendant appellant.

W. A. Johnson, Lillington, for Luby Waxton, defendant appellant.

SHARP, Chief Justice.

Patently, defendants' motion to dismiss the charges against them and their contentions that because certain items of evidence were omitted from the summaries furnished them by the solicitor are without merit and require no discussion. Each defendant went upon the stand and voluntarily

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testified to facts which make him guilty of murder in the first degree. As counsel concede, the only significant difference in their testimony relates to who fired the shot which killed Mrs. Butler during the robbery of the E--Z Shop; and, since each admitted he was one of the four who conspired to rob the shop, legally it makes no difference whether Waxton or Tucker fired the shot.

'When a murder is 'committed in the perpetration or attempt to perpetrate any . . . robbery, burglary or other felony,' G.S. § 14--17 declares it murder in the first degree. In those instances the law presumes premeditation and deliberation, and the State is not put to further proof of either. . . . Furthermore, when a conspiracy is formed to commit a robbery by burglary, and a murder is committed by any one of the conspirators in the attempted perpetration of the crime, each and all of the conspirators are guilty of murder in the first degree.' (Citations omitted.) State v. Fox, 277 N.C. 1, 17, 175 S.E.2d 561, 571 (1970).

Had the testimony of Tucker and Carroll been incompetent, the testimony of defendants themselves would stymie their contention that its admission constituted prejudicial error. However, the testimony of their co-conspirators was competent. 'A co-conspirator is an accomplice, and is always a competent witness; assuming of course he is compos mentis.' State v. Goldberg, 261 N.C. 181, 202, 134 S.E.2d 334, 348 (1964). 'It is obvious . . . that in practically every case where an accomplice testifies as a witness for the prosecution, he is induced to do so by a promise, or at least by a hope and expectation, of immunity or leniency for himself, and that the rule which makes an [287 N.C. 591] accomplice a competent witness would be of little benefit if he were made incompetent by the mere fact that he had received such a promise.

'In accordance with this view, the courts, both English and American, have held with substantial unanimity that a witness who is otherwise competent to testify is not rendered incompetent by the fact that he has a promise of immunity or lenience for himself.' Annot., 120 A.L.R 742, 751 (1938); See State v. Watson, 283 N.C. 383, 196 S.E.2d 212 (1973); annot., 24 L.R.A. (N.S.) 442--443 (1910).

As Justice Barnhill (later Chief Justice) said in State v. Roberson, 215 N.C. 784, 787, 3 S.E.2d 277, 279 (1939), 'It bears against the credibility of a witness that he is an accomplice in the crime charged and testifies for the prosecution; and the pendency of an indictment against the witness indicates indirectly a similar possibility of his currying favor by testifying for the State; so, too, the existence of a promise or just expectation of pardon for his share as accomplice in the crime charged. 2 Wigmore on Evidence, 2d ed., 350.' See 1 N.C. Evidence § 45 (Brandis Rev. 1973).

Judge McKinnon correctly held that Tucker and Carroll were competent witnesses and that their status as co-conspirators testifying for the State bore upon the weight and credibility of their testimony and not upon its competency.

G.S. § 14--17, as rewritten on 8 April 1974 by the enactment of N.C.Sess.Laws, ch. 1201, § 1 provides that murder in the first degree 'shall be punished with death.' Defendants contend, however, that capital punishment 'under the laws of North Carolina (would) violate U.S.Const. Amend. VIII and Amend. XIV, § 1, and N.C.Const. art. 1, §§ 19, 27.' In the last three years this Court has several times rejected these contentions. They have been thoroughly considered and further discussion would be merely repetitious. See State v. Waddell, 282 N.C. 431, 194 S.E.2d 19 (1973); State v. Jarrette, 284 N.C. 625, 202 S.E.2d 721 (1974); State v. Fowler, 285 N.C. 90, 203 S.E.2d 803 (1974); State v. Crowder, 285 N.C. 42, 203 S.E.2d 38 (1974); State v. Avery, 286 N.C. 459, 212 S.E.2d 142 (1975).

Albeit three members of the Court dissented as to the death penalty in each of the foregoing cases and voted to remand

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for the imposition of a sentence of life imprisonment, the dissents were not based upon the premise that the death [287 N.C. 592] sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment or that there were any constitutional infirmities in capital punishment Per se. On the contrary, the thesis of the dissents was (1) that the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S.Ct. 2726, 33 L.Ed.2d 346 (1972), decided 29 June 1972, had invalidated the death penalty provisions of G.S. § 14--17 (and also G.S. § 14--21, G.S. § 14--52, and G.S. § 14--58), enacted in 1949; and (2) that until the statutes which made death the punishment for first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, rape, and arson were rewritten or amended by the General Assembly, this Court could not reinstate capital punishment.

On 8 April 1974 the General Assembly rewrote G.S. § 14--17 and G.S. § 14--21 to provide the death sentence for first-degree murder and first-degree rape. At the same time it rewrote G.S. § 14--52 and G.S. § 14--58 to provide life imprisonment for burglary in the first degree and arson. As to first-degree murders and first-degree rapes committed After 8 April 1974, by its rewrite of G.S. § 14--17 and G.S. § 14--21, the General Assembly eliminated the grounds upon which three members of the Court had dissented to the imposition of the death sentence for such crimes committed prior to that date. The felony-murder for which Waxton and Woodson have been convicted was committed on 3 June 1974--56 days after the legislature redeclared the public policy of this State with reference to capital punishment. Until changed by the General Assembly, or invalidated by the Supreme Court of the United States, that policy must stand.

Counsel for defendants, although aware of the Waddell and Jarrette decisions, as well as the subsequent ones based on them, have understandably felt constrained to repeat the constitutional challenge to the death penalty.

Defendants next contend that since Waxton, Woodson, Carroll, and Tucker, the four conspirators, are equally guilty of first-degree murder it would be 'fundamentally unfair' to permit two of them to plead guilty to offenses less than capital in exchange for their testimony against the others. Defendant Waxton, who tendered at the close of the evidence the same plea which Tucker tendered prior to the trial, contends that the solicitor's refusal to accept his plea was an arbitrary exercise of power which denied him due process and the equal protection of the laws. Defendant Woodson, who tendered no plea and contended throughout that he was not guilty, argues [287 N.C. 593] that 'due process and equal protection' require that he receive no greater punishment than his accomplices could have been given under their pleas.

'From the earliest times, it has been found necessary, for the detection and punishment of crime, for the state to resort to the criminals themselves for testimony with which to convict their confederates in crime. While such a course offers a premium to treachery, and sometimes permits the more guilty to escape, it tends to prevent and break up combinations, by making criminals suspicious of each other, and it often leads to the punishment of guilty persons who would otherwise escape. Therefore, on the ground of public policy, it has been uniformly held that a state may contract with a criminal for his exemption from prosecution if he shall honestly and fairly make a full disclosure of the crime, whether the party testified against is convicted or not. (Citations omitted.)' Ingram v. Prescott, 111 Fla. 320, 321--322, 149 So. 369 (1933); Henderson v. State, 135 Fla. 548, 185 So. 625, 120 A.L.R. 742 (1938). For the history of the 'ancient modes of practice' when accomplices 'turned State's evidence,' see United States v. Ford, 99 U.S. 594, 25 L.Ed. 399 (1879); 1 Wharton's Criminal Law and Procedure § 165 (1957); 22 C.J.S Criminal Law § 46(1) (1961); 8 R.C.L., Criminal Law § 101 (1915); Notes:

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18 Am. & Eng.Ann.Cas. 747 (1911); 24 L.R.A. (N.S.) 439 et seq. (1910).

In many states the prosecuting attorney has no authority without the court's consent, to make a binding agreement with one charged with a crime that if he will testify against others, he himself shall be exempt from criminal liability or be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser offense. 'In states in which a prosecuting attorney may enter A nolle prosequi without the consent of the court, he may grant a witness immunity from prosecution by contract without approval of the court.' 21 Am.Jur.2d, Criminal Law § 153, See also §§ 514--518 (1965); 24 L.R.A. (N.S.) 442--443 (1910); 18 Am. & Eng.Ann.Cas. 748--749 (1911); annot., 85 A.L.R. 1177 (1933). The courts treat such promises as pledges of the public faith and, when made by...

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