State v. Ames, 110519 NCCA, COA18-1035

Docket Nº:COA18-1035
Opinion Judge:BROOK, JUDGE.
Attorney:Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Derrick C. Mertz, for the State. Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender James R. Grant, for Defendant.
Judge Panel:Judge ZACHARY concurs. Judge DILLON dissents by separate opinion. DILLON, Judge, dissenting.
Case Date:November 05, 2019
Court:Court of Appeals of North Carolina



KAMANI AMES, Defendant.

No. COA18-1035

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

November 5, 2019

Heard in the Court of Appeals 7 August 2019.

Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 19 January 2018 by Judge Jerry R. Tillett in Camden County No. 15CRS50149 Superior Court.

Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Special Deputy Attorney General Derrick C. Mertz, for the State.

Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender James R. Grant, for Defendant.


Kamani Ames ("Defendant") appeals from judgment entered upon a jury verdict finding him guilty of first-degree murder. On appeal, Defendant challenges his sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Defendant argues that the trial court applied the incorrect legal standard in sentencing him to the harshest punishment possible for a crime he committed as a juvenile. We agree. We therefore vacate the trial court's judgment and remand the case for re-sentencing.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

A. Background Facts

On 27 September 2015, 18-year-old Nahcier Brunson shot and killed 17-year-old Unique Graham in Camden Causeway Park. The only witness was Defendant, then 17 years old.

Graham and Brunson and Defendant knew one another through Defendant's sister. Graham and Defendant's sister were dating at the time of the shooting. Their relationship had caused friction between Graham and Defendant; both parties had pressed criminal charges against each other that were subsequently dismissed. At the same time, Brunson was "dating [and] messing around" with Defendant's sister. Brunson and Defendant were new acquaintances, having only known each other for approximately two weeks at the time of the shooting.

B. The Murder, Investigation, and Trial

The evidence at trial tended to show that Defendant went to law enforcement the day after the shooting, 28 September 2015. He stated that he had discussed robbing a drug dealer with Brunson and Graham. However, while acknowledging that he was present when Brunson shot and killed Graham, he claimed he played no part in the shooting. Police then arrested Defendant for being an accessory after the fact. After his arrest, Defendant claimed he was not actually present at the shooting.

While interviewing Defendant, police executed a search warrant of his house. There they found a gun, which Defendant admitted was used in the murder. Police then placed Defendant under arrest for first-degree murder.

When confronted by police, Brunson initially claimed that he played no role in the killing. Within the next two days, however, he accepted full responsibility, indicating that he had acted alone in killing Graham. After his arrest, Brunson said the same in a letter to Defendant's trial lawyer and in an interview with a local news channel.[1]

At the trial, however, Brunson testified that Defendant had orchestrated the killing. More particularly, Brunson testified that on the evening of 27 September 2015 Defendant drove him to Camden Causeway Park. Once at the park, Defendant and Brunson both walked down the wooden walkway. According to Brunson's trial testimony, Defendant then called Graham and asked him to participate in a robbery with them. Graham agreed. Defendant asked Brunson who should hold the gun on the way to pick up Graham; believing this to be a question about who would be armed during the robbery, Brunson volunteered to do so and put Defendant's gun in his waistband. After picking Graham up, the three youths returned to the walkway at Camden Causeway Park to smoke marijuana. After Brunson and Defendant finished smoking marijuana, Brunson testified that Defendant "fell back" as they walked down the walkway. Defendant then "indicated" for Brunson to shoot Graham by tapping Brunson and making his hand into the shape of a gun. Brunson testified that he looked at Defendant twice to see if "he was for real[, ]" and then he shot and killed Graham.

At trial, the State also introduced "kites," or jail letters, between Defendant and Brunson written while both were incarcerated and awaiting trial. One found in Defendant's cell read in part: I [Defendant] was told that if he does tell the court people that I was honestly had nothing to do with the murder and that he [Brunson] kidnapped me, then that will help me out a lot and they just drop the charges against me . . . . If they do drop the charges against me, then I still got to fight to get the murder charges dropped, but what he would have to tell them is I had nothing to do with it and he made me drive him back[.]

This communication came after Brunson told police he alone was responsible for the murder and gave a news interview stating the same, but before his letter to Defendant's trial counsel accepting full responsibility. A fellow inmate also testified that Defendant confessed to him that "he planned the murder."

Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury on 19 January 2018.

C. The Sentencing Hearing

In the same court session, the trial court conducted a brief sentencing hearing. Defense counsel called one witness, Defendant's mother. She testified that Defendant grew up in a household plagued by domestic violence and was exposed to violence visited upon her by both his father and stepfather. She further testified Defendant played football and ran track in high school while also maintaining good grades. Finally, she testified that Defendant completed high school and earned his high school diploma while incarcerated awaiting trial.

Defense counsel argued that a sentence of life without parole was inappropriate based on this evidence. Defendant had no prior criminal record, was not the shooter, and there was a "strong likelihood that [Defendant would] benefit from rehabilitation and confinement." Counsel contended confinement had not "stop[ped] [Defendant] from moving on with parts of his life[, ]" referencing his completion of his high school education while in jail.

The State asked for a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The State argued Defendant "manipulated" the shooter, Brunson, and that Defendant had "manifest[ed] an effort to, in some respects, obstruct justice." Finally, the State contended Defendant had not "show[n] a second of remorse" for the period leading up to and during trial. The State presented no evidence at sentencing.

In an oral order, the trial court sentenced Defendant to life without the possibility of parole. The court's oral order was as follows: At this juncture, the Court has considered the arguments made. The Court's considered the factors of mitigation that are possible under Chapter 15A-1340.19B, together with those that have been argued by defense counsel and the State.

The Court finds that the defendant did have no record at the time - no prior criminal record at the time of this offense. The Court finds that he was 17 at the time of the offense. The Court finds that the defendant has demonstrated that he did have an ability to appreciate the risk and consequences of his conduct in that he engaged at various times throughout the process and the process of investigation with schemes to cover his conduct or deter others from providing information that would be detrimental to him.

In addition, the Court finds that there is no evidence of immaturity that would be countenanced under what the Court interprets the intentions of this statute, which has a narrow application to a person who is convicted of first degree murder who, at the time, had not attained the age of 18. Limited to that general class of persons, the Court finds there is no evidence of immaturity that would not otherwise be applicable to all those within that class.

The Court finds that there is no evidence of mental illness or impairment. There's no evidence of any familial or peer pressure exerted upon the defendant relative to the commission of this offense.

The Court does find that the defendant had an intellectual capacity that was not impaired and may have been, in fact, above average in that the defendant had been transferred or made arrangements to be transferred to a different high school other than his original county, was participating in sports and was making As, Bs, and Cs.

The Court finds that there is no evidence before the Court at this juncture of the likelihood that the defendant would benefit from rehabilitation and confinement other than that of other class of persons who may be incarcerated or may be incarcerated for the offense of first degree murder.

The Court finds that the mitigating factors that have been found, that is of no record and the age, are outweighed by the other evidence in this case of the nature of the offense and the manner in which it was committed, specifically that of involving another person who the Court concludes was manipulated by the defendant; also taking advantage of a position of what may have been trust or confidence in that the victim was - a scheme was concocted to lure the victim to ride with the defendant under a ruse and under a scheme which ultimately resulted in his vulnerability and his death.

The Court concludes that life without parole is the appropriate sentence.

Prior to trial, the State had offered Defendant a plea deal that would have resulted in him serving 16 to 30 years in prison. He rejected this proposed plea deal.

II. Analysis

Defendant argues on appeal that the trial court sentenced him based on the incorrect legal standard in violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In assessing this argument, we review the governing federal and state jurisprudence on the punishment of juvenile offenders. These cases compel the...

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