State v. Al-Bayyinah

Decision Date16 August 2002
Docket NumberNo. 90A01.,90A01.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Jathiyah A. AL-BAYYINAH, aka Terry Dennis Moore.

Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Joan M. Cunningham and Amy C. Kunstling, Assistant Attorneys General, for the State.

Staples Hughes, Appellate Defender, by Janet Moore, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellant. MARTIN, Justice.

On 7 December 1999, a jury convicted defendant Jathiyah A. Al-Bayyinah of attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon and felony murder. On 13 December 1999, the jury recommended a sentence of death, and the trial court entered judgment in accordance with that recommendation the following day.

The facts pertinent to our disposition of this case are summarized as follows. Simon Wilford Brown (Brown) owned a wholesale grocery store at 473 Depot Street in Mocksville, North Carolina, which he operated with the help of his family, including his son, Charles Brown (Charles). On 6 March 1998, Charles arrived at the store at approximately 7:30 a.m. He entered through the front door and locked it behind him. About twenty minutes later, he heard his father enter the store. A short time later, Charles rushed to the front of the store when he heard his father call out for him. Motioning toward the front door, Brown said a man had stabbed him and had run out the door and to the right.

While Charles gave chase, his father dialed 911 and reported that he had been stabbed in the course of a robbery. Brown identified the robber as an African American male wearing dark clothing and repeated several times that he thought he recognized the robber as a man who had tried to cash a paycheck in his store the previous day. When Charles returned to the store, he noticed that his father's wallet was on the floor and that money was scattered about. A later inventory of the store and Brown's wallet revealed that no substantial amount of money or merchandise was missing. Brown died nine days later, on 15 March 1998. Forensic pathologist Patrick Eugene Lantz, who performed the autopsy, testified that the cause of death was complications from a stab wound to the chest.

Clarence Melvin Parks testified that he saw an African American male dressed in a dark hooded windbreaker and jeans near Brown's store shortly after 7:30 a.m. on the morning of 6 March 1998. Jean Sheets, who was in her car on Depot Street that morning, testified that she saw an African American male dressed in dark clothing near Brown's store and that a short time later, she saw the man running down the street. Officer Joey Reynolds of the Mocksville Police Department also spotted defendant near the store on the day of the crime. Defendant was wearing jeans, a dark blue sweatshirt, black boots, and a black coat. Reynolds and two other officers pursued defendant into a wooded area and took him into custody.

At trial, the state introduced the testimony of Alexander Splitt, a Mocksville grocery store owner who had been robbed on two separate occasions approximately one month before Brown was stabbed. Splitt testified that the first robbery occurred on 20 January 1998 at about 6:40 a.m., when he was alone in his store. A man wearing a dark ski mask and dark clothing ran into the store brandishing a gun and came behind the store counter with Splitt. Splitt described the robber's voice and the words he spoke, relating that the robber demanded money and admonished Splitt not to look at him. Splitt testified that he could tell the man was African American because the robber came very close to him, and Splitt could clearly see, under the lights of the store, the robber's exposed eyes, nose, lips, and hands. Splitt estimated the robber's height at around five feet seven or five feet eight inches. Splitt testified that the robber was moving very quickly and that, before he left the store, he forced Splitt to get down onto the floor behind the counter. Splitt noted that it was very dark outside and "drizzling," but when he got up and looked out of the front window, he testified that he could see the robber running across the street, away from the store.

The second robbery occurred on 22 January 1998 around 7:40 p.m. Splitt again described the weather as dark and drizzling. Splitt testified that an African American man wearing dark clothing, including a dark blue hood, entered the store and asked Splitt for a pack of cigarettes. Splitt stated that as he turned his back on the man to retrieve the cigarettes, he thought he recognized the voice as the robber from two days before. When Splitt turned back around, the man was splashing gasoline onto the grocery counter from a two-liter soda bottle. The gasoline soaked Splitt's clothing and splashed onto the cash register. Splitt testified that the robber repeated his demand for money and pulled out a cigarette lighter, threatening to ignite the gasoline. Splitt recounted that he recognized not only the robber's voice, but also his eyes and face, visible under the hood. After Splitt gave him the money, he watched as the robber quickly exited and ran across the street away from the store in the same direction as the first robber. The day after this encounter, Splitt reported both of the robberies to the Davie County Sheriff's Department.

On 3 February 1998, Splitt reviewed the Department's mug shot book but was unable to identify the robber out of several thousand photos. Defendant's picture was not in the mug shot book at that time. A few hours after Brown was stabbed on 6 March 1998, a detective contacted Splitt and told him that he had a suspect in custody for a robbery that had occurred that morning. Splitt was invited to come to the magistrate's office to look at a photograph of defendant, the suspect. Splitt was shown a single photograph of defendant, and Splitt identified defendant as the man he believed had robbed his store on two previous occasions.

In response to defendant's motion to suppress Splitt's testimony, the state countered that Splitt's descriptions of the two prior armed robberies were admissible under Rule 404(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence. The trial court denied defendant's motion to suppress. Defendant argues the trial court committed reversible error because Splitt's testimony was irrelevant and was used solely for the unfairly prejudicial purpose of proving bad character.

Rule 404(b) provides that "[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show that he acted in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake, entrapment or accident." N.C.G.S. § 8C-1, Rule 404(b) (2001). In State v. Coffey, 326 N.C. 268, 389 S.E.2d 48 (1990), this Court held that Rule 404(b) "state[s] a clear general rule of inclusion of relevant evidence of other crimes, wrongs or acts by a defendant, subject to but one exception requiring its exclusion if its only probative value is to show that the defendant has the propensity or disposition to commit an offense of the nature of the crime charged." Id. at 278-79, 389 S.E.2d at 54 (emphasis altered).

Rule 404(b) evidence, however, should be carefully scrutinized in order to adequately safeguard against the improper introduction of character evidence against the accused. See N.C.G.S. § 8C-1, Rule 404(a) ("Evidence of a person's character ... is not admissible for the purpose of proving that he acted in conformity therewith on a particular occasion."); see also Michelson v. United States, 335 U.S. 469, 475-76, 69 S.Ct. 213, 218-19, 93 L.Ed. 168, 174 (1948)

("The inquiry [into character] is not rejected because character is irrelevant; on the contrary, it is said to weigh too much with the [jurors] and to so overpersuade them as to prejudge one with a bad general record and deny him a fair opportunity to defend against a particular charge. The overriding policy of excluding such evidence, despite its admitted probative value, is the practical experience that its disallowance tends to prevent confusion of issues, unfair surprise and undue prejudice.") (footnote omitted); State v. Jones, 322 N.C. 585, 588, 369 S.E.2d 822, 824 (1988) ("[T]he admissibility of evidence of a prior crime must be closely scrutinized since this type of evidence may put before the jury crimes or bad acts allegedly committed by the defendant for which he has neither been indicted nor convicted."). As we stated in State v. Johnson, 317 N.C. 417, 347 S.E.2d 7 (1986), "[t]he dangerous tendency of [Rule 404(b) ] evidence to mislead and raise a legally spurious presumption of guilt requires that its admissibility should be subjected to strict scrutiny by the courts." Id. at 430, 347 S.E.2d at 15; see also 1A John H. Wigmore, Evidence § 58.2 (Peter Tillers ed. 1983) ("[Character evidence] is objectionable not because it has no appreciable probative value but because it has too much. The natural and inevitable tendency of the tribunal— whether judge or jury—is to give excessive weight to the vicious record of crime thus exhibited and either to allow it to bear too strongly on the present charge or to take the proof of it as justifying a condemnation, irrespective of the accused's guilt of the present charge.").

To effectuate these important evidentiary safeguards, the rule of inclusion described in Coffey is constrained by the requirements of similarity and temporal...

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