State v. Alston

Citation341 N.C. 198,461 S.E.2d 687
Decision Date08 September 1995
Docket NumberNo. 416A92,416A92
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Charlie Mason ALSTON.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

Michael F. Easley, Attorney General by Mary Jill Ledford, Assistant Attorney General, for the State.

Joseph B. Cheshire, V and Robert Manner Hurley, Raleigh, for defendant-appellant.

LAKE, Justice.

The defendant was indicted on 28 May 1991 for the first-degree murder of Pamela Renee Perry. The defendant was tried capitally, and the jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder on the theory of premeditation and deliberation. Following a sentencing proceeding pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 15A-2000, the jury recommended that defendant be sentenced to death. For the reasons discussed herein, we conclude that the jury selection and the guilt and sentencing phases of defendant's trial were free from prejudicial error, and that the sentence of death is not disproportionate.

At trial, the State presented evidence tending to show that Pamela Perry died sometime during the late evening hours of 30 November 1990 or the early morning hours of 1 December 1990. Vonceil Perry, the Dr. John D. Butts, the Chief Medical Examiner for the State of North Carolina, testified that he performed an autopsy on the victim on 1 December 1990. Dr. Butts' testimony revealed that the victim received a number of blunt-force injuries to her face. He stated that the victim suffered substantial bruising and swelling over her entire face and neck, bruising and lacerations to her right eye, bruising on the left side of her neck, a tear in the skin at the corner of her mouth, a series of tears in the skin on the right cheek, tears in the skin on her left ear, tears to the skin along the left side of her jaw which were approximately one inch deep, a tear to the inner surface of her lip, and several scrapes and abrasions. Dr. Butts' internal examination disclosed blood over the surface of the brain, resulting from the blows to the face, and hemorrhaging inside the victim's neck, larynx, and trachea. The victim also had bruises and bleeding in the eyes. Dr. Butts testified that these injuries were caused by a blunt, hard object, having two edges or prongs which could break the skin and produce parallel scrapes. Dr. Butts opined that a hammer found on the victim's bed could have caused the injuries to the victim's face.

victim's mother, discovered her daughter's body on the morning of 1 December 1990 after returning home from work. Ms. Perry testified that when she first saw her daughter, her daughter was lying face down on a pillow in her daughter's bedroom. When Ms. Perry lifted her daughter's head, she observed that the victim's face had been beaten severely.

Dr. Butts further testified that the victim did not die as a result of the blunt-force injuries, but died as a result of asphyxiation or suffocation. Dr. Butts did, however, testify that the victim was alive when she received the blunt-force injuries. Dr. Butts testified that in his opinion, a pillow could have been used to suffocate the victim, and that it normally took at least three to four minutes for a person to suffocate. Dr. Butts further opined that the victim could not have suffocated by merely lying face down in the pillow, but would have to have been forced down into the pillow.

Vonceil Perry's testimony revealed that the defendant and the victim had been dating each other for approximately one year. However, at some point in time prior to the murder, difficulties arose between the victim and the defendant. Ms. Perry was allowed to testify, over defendant's objection, that her daughter had been receiving threatening phone calls from the defendant. Specifically, Ms. Perry stated that her daughter told her that the defendant kept telling her (the victim) that she had a beautiful face and that he would hate to have to "smash it in" and "mess [it] up." As a result of the phone calls, the victim filed a complaint with the Warren County Sheriff's Department. Deputy Sean Brake, the deputy who took the complaint, testified that the victim indicated that the caller sounded like the defendant and had threatened to kill her during one of the phone calls.

Ms. Perry further testified that her daughter was a waitress and received a large quantity of quarters from tips earned on her job. Most of the coins had been rolled and placed in a large jar on a table in the victim's bedroom. When the victim's body was discovered, the jar was found empty at the edge of the victim's bed. The night of her death, the victim had more than one hundred dollars' worth of change in the jar.

Brenda Turner testified that she worked at Willoughby's Convenience Store on 1 December 1990, and that the defendant came into Willoughby's at approximately 11:00 p.m. that night and purchased gas and a soft drink with quarters. Ms. Turner stated that defendant's total expenditure was four or five dollars. Sherry Jiggetts testified that she knew the defendant, and that defendant came to her house and purchased forty to forty-five dollars' worth of crack cocaine. Ms. Jiggetts testified that the defendant paid for the drugs with change consisting of quarters, dimes and nickels. Although she could not remember at trial when this transaction occurred, she acknowledged that she had previously given a statement to the police that this transaction occurred within a week of the murder. Another witness, Phyllis Alexander, testified that she lived with Ms. Jiggetts and that around the time of the Other testimony revealed that on a separate occasion, the defendant broke into the victim's home and assaulted her and a friend. During this incident, the defendant struck the victim in the head approximately three times. The defendant was charged with assault, and the victim testified against defendant at the assault trial. The defendant was found guilty, placed on probation and ordered to pay for the victim's medical bills. Two days later, the victim was found dead.

murder, the defendant came to her house and wanted to exchange about forty to forty-five dollars in quarters for cash.

The defendant moved to dismiss at the close of the State's evidence. The trial court denied the motion. The defendant presented no evidence during the guilt phase of the trial.

At the penalty phase of trial, the defendant called five witnesses in an attempt to establish a factual basis for the statutory and nonstatutory circumstances he requested be submitted to the jury. The State did not present any additional evidence.

Three aggravating circumstances were submitted to the jury: (1) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel; (2) the murder was committed against a former witness; and (3) the murder was committed for pecuniary gain. Three statutory mitigating circumstances and three nonstatutory mitigating circumstances were also submitted to the jury. The statutory mitigating circumstances included: (1) no significant history of prior criminal activity; (2) capital felony committed while the defendant was under the influence of emotional or mental disturbance; and (3) any other circumstances arising from the evidence. The nonstatutory mitigating circumstances submitted were: (1) the defendant has a good reputation in the community; (2) the defendant was regularly employed at the time of the offense; and (3) the defendant has a supportive family structure. The jury found the existence of all three aggravating circumstances and declined to find the existence of any of the six mitigating circumstances. Consequently, the jury found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances and recommended a sentence of death.

PRETRIAL/JURY SELECTION
I.

The defendant first assigns error to the trial court's denial of his motion to permit voir dire of potential jurors regarding their beliefs about parole eligibility. The defendant, relying on Simmons v. South Carolina, 512 U.S. 154, 114 S.Ct. 2187, 129 L.Ed.2d 133 (1994), argues that the trial court's restriction during voir dire prevented defense counsel from identifying and educating those potential jurors who held erroneous beliefs regarding parole eligibility and, thus, effectively concealed accurate sentencing information from the jurors ultimately selected. This Court, however, has previously held that information regarding parole eligibility is not relevant to the issues at trial and is not a proper matter for the jury to consider in a capital sentencing proceeding. See State v. McNeil, 324 N.C. 33, 44, 375 S.E.2d 909, 916 (1989), sentence vacated on other grounds, 494 U.S. 1050, 110 S.Ct. 1516, 108 L.Ed.2d 756, on remand, 327 N.C. 388, 395 S.E.2d 106 (1990), cert. denied, 499 U.S. 942, 111 S.Ct. 1403, 113 L.Ed.2d 459 (1991).

Simmons does not affect our prior rulings on this issue. In Simmons, the Supreme Court held that "where the defendant's future dangerousness is at issue, and state law prohibits the defendant's release on parole, due process requires that the sentencing jury be informed that the defendant is parole ineligible." Simmons, 512 U.S. at ----, 114 S.Ct. at 2190, 129 L.Ed.2d at 138. The Supreme Court, however, acknowledged the rule stated in California v. Ramos, 463 U.S. 992, 1014, 103 S.Ct. 3446, 3460, 77 L.Ed.2d 1171, 1189 (1983), that when the defendant is eligible for parole, it is ultimately for the states to determine whether and under what circumstances juries are to be instructed regarding the availability of parole. Simmons, 512 U.S. at ----, 114 S.Ct. at 2196, 129 L.Ed.2d at 145. Unlike the defendant in Simmons, the defendant in the case sub judice would have been eligible for parole had he received a life sentence. This Court has consistently rejected the argument that Simmons

requires North Carolina juries be informed as to the length of time a defendant must serve before becoming eligible for parole. See State v. Price, 337 N.C. 756, 763, 448 S.E.2d 827, 831 (1994) (Simmons limited...

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