State v. Benson, 420A91

Docket NºNo. 420A91
Citation417 S.E.2d 756, 331 N.C. 537
Case DateJune 25, 1992
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

Lacy H. Thornburg, Atty. Gen. by Clarence J. DelForge, III, Asst. Atty. Gen., for the State.

Malcolm Ray Hunter, Jr., Appellate Defender by Gordon Widenhouse, Asst. Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellant.

MEYER, Justice.

On 11 December 1989, defendant, Davey Lynn Benson, was indicted for the first-degree murder of Joe F. Horne. On 14 January 1991, a second indictment was issued charging defendant with the robbery with a dangerous weapon of the same victim. Defendant was tried noncapitally for the murder.

The facts pertinent to our decision in this case are as follows. At approximately 8:30 a.m. on the morning of 19 July 1989, Donnie Lee Boykin sat with defendant in an outdoor meeting area in the community of Moore Schoolhouse. Defendant told Boykin that he had recently broken up with his girlfriend, Michelle Hiatt, and that Hiatt and the couple's daughter, Brandy, were living with Hiatt's mother in Kenly. Defendant expressed a desire to visit the two in Kenly but said he lacked money, having only fourteen cents in his pocket. Defendant asked Boykin for gas money for his moped, and Boykin replied that he did not have any money.

Shortly thereafter, Boykin and defendant observed Joe "Chunk" Horne, an eighty-five-year-old resident of Moore Schoolhouse, walk past the meeting area. Mr. Horne, a survivor of the great depression of the 1930s, was known to customarily carry large amounts of cash on his person because he distrusted banks. The money included denominations of hundreds, fifties, twenties, tens, fives, and ones. Two months earlier, Mildred Deans, Mr. Horne's daughter, witnessed Mr. Horne count his savings; the amount was estimated to be in excess of $16,000. Mr. Horne carried some of his money in his wallet in his left hip pocket and the rest rolled up in a plastic bag in his right hip pocket. According to Boykin, defendant stated something to the effect that Mr. Horne "had a lot of money on him ...[,] if somebody didn't rob him or knock him in the head or something." Boykin replied that Mr. Horne had "been mighty lucky he'd been this long and carried it with him and never been hit." Boykin testified that on previous occasions defendant had remarked about Mr. Horne's practice of carrying large amounts of money and that defendant would like to obtain it. According to Boykin, as Mr. Horne passed by, he told Boykin and defendant that he intended to go fishing that day at his favorite fishing spot, Atkinson Mill, a popular nearby fishing destination. Boykin also testified that defendant took with him three or four full Budweiser beer cans when defendant left the meeting area at approximately 9:45 a.m.

Christy Deans Pearce, Mr. Horne's granddaughter, gave Mr. Horne a ride to Atkinson Mill that morning. As he stepped out of the car at approximately 9:30 a.m. at the Mill, Mr. Horne had three fishing poles and a white, five-gallon bucket that he sat on while fishing. Ms. Pearce noticed the usual bulge in Mr. Horne's pocket caused by the money he carried. While on her way home from work that same day, Ms. Pearce stopped by Atkinson Mill to pick up her grandfather. Calling for him but receiving no reply, she thought he had obtained a ride from a friend or other family member, which was not uncommon. She returned with her boyfriend a number of hours later to search for him again. As they approached the area, the two saw on the ground a number of fish with torn mouths, as if they had been stripped off a fish stringer. As they continued, they saw a dirty, torn cloth on the trail, which was later identified as Mr. Horne's shirt. Upon arriving at the river, they saw Mr. Horne lying in the water without his shirt, and the white bucket and fishing poles were floating nearby. Vertical scars and abrasions were visible on Mr. Horne's back, indicating that he had been dragged on the ground. Mr. Horne was also missing his right boot. His pants were pulled down below his knees, but the belt was still buckled.

When the authorities arrived, Mr. Horne was pronounced dead; the body's condition indicated that he had been deceased for some time, but no exact time of death was determined. No money was found on Mr. Horne's person, and his body showed indicia of a severe beating about the head and face with a flat, blunt object. An autopsy revealed additional trauma to the throat consistent with strangulation and several bruises on the back of the hand that were likely defensive wounds. The cause of death was brain trauma due to a blow or blows of a blunt instrument to the head.

At the murder scene, there was a three or four foot wide "drag trail," where leaves had been disturbed, leading to the river. The point of origin of the trail was a wooded area where there were several fish with torn mouths lying on the ground and a felled pine tree that was splattered with blood. There was also blood on the ground around the fish. Six or eight feet from the fish, a slate rock about the size of a man's hand was found; the rock appeared to have blood on it. Five or six steps down the drag trail, Mr. Horne's right boot was found lying on the ground. Nearby, there was a pool of blood. About six feet away, there was another pool of blood measuring the size of a man's hand, with an indentation in the blood. At various locations throughout the murder scene there were Budweiser beer cans.

At approximately 5:30 p.m. that same day, defendant saw his brother, Danny Curtis Benson, and told him that he wanted to get back together with Michelle Hiatt. Defendant told his brother that he would give him $400.00 if Danny could persuade Hiatt to return. Defendant also stated that he would give Hiatt $1,000 and a new car. Danny Benson testified that he was surprised by this offer because he knew that only two days earlier defendant had to borrow five dollars from Hiatt. When Danny asked defendant where he had obtained the money, defendant stated that he acquired it by selling drugs around Kenly. Defendant then pulled from his pocket a wad of money one-half an inch thick with a one hundred dollar bill on top. Danny also testified that a few days later defendant took six persons, including Danny, Hiatt and Brandy, out to dinner and paid the bill with a one hundred dollar bill. Evidence was also adduced showing that defendant rented a mobile home on 3 August 1989, paying a cash deposit of $150.00 plus a month's rent of $175.00, and bought two bottles of propane gas for $54.00. Two of the bills defendant used to pay these sums were one hundred dollar bills. Evidence was presented that defendant started working as a day laborer for a local farmer for $4.00 an hour on 20 July 1989, the day after Mr. Horne's death, and earned a total of $160.00 at the time he quit on 2 August 1989.

Testimony was also presented by eight persons who stated that defendant had stated on numerous occasions how easy it would be to strike Mr. Horne on the head and take his money. Other testimony placed defendant and his moped, which was silver and black, at the murder scene itself. Carl Smith testified that he was in the Atkinson Mill area on the day of the murder between twelve noon and three in the afternoon and saw a young white male in his twenties working on a disabled moped. On his return trip, Mr. Smith considered stopping to render assistance but decided not to do so because he was taken aback by the behavior of the young man who at that time was rolling around in the grass with his hands and feet in the air appearing very happy and laughing about something.

Donald Pearce, then the boyfriend of Christy Deans Pearce, testified that he saw defendant on three separate occasions on the day of the murder. He saw defendant on a black and gray moped between 9:30 and 10:00 a.m. Defendant was neatly dressed, as was customarily the case. Some time between 3:30 and 4:30 p.m., Pearce saw defendant tinkering with his moped near the roadside. At this time, defendant appeared disheveled; his shirttail was half pulled out, his tennis shoes were dirty, and he did not look as neat as he typically appeared. In addition to witnesses Pearce and Smith, several other persons testified that they saw defendant or someone that looked like him at Atkinson Mill on the day of the murder.

Defendant did not present any evidence on his own behalf. After deliberating for fifty-five minutes, the jury found defendant guilty of robbery with a dangerous weapon and of first-degree murder on the theory of felony murder. The court imposed a life sentence on the basis of the first-degree murder conviction and arrested judgment on defendant's robbery with a dangerous weapon conviction.

Additional facts will be discussed as necessary for the proper disposition of the issues raised by defendant.

Defendant first argues that the trial court erred in denying defendant's motion to dismiss the charge of first-degree murder based on the felony murder theory because the evidence was insufficient to convince a rational trier of fact of defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. According to defendant, the evidence that he perpetrated the felony murder against the victim in the instant case was speculative at best.

Defendant offers several arguments in support of his position. First, the State's evidence failed to establish the time of the victim's death with any accuracy. This inability was of critical importance because of the inconsistent evidence pertaining to when defendant was at Atkinson Mill on 19 July, if he was there at all. Second, no eyewitnesses to the murder existed, and no specific motive linked solely to defendant was presented by the State. It was common knowledge that the victim carried a large sum of money on his person. Further, many people spoke threateningly of the ease with which the victim could be robbed. Third, no weapon linked defendant...

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    • 5 Octubre 2001 601, 264 S.E.2d at 92. "`Such variations affect only the weight of the evidence which is for the jury to determine.'" State v. Benson, 331 N.C. 537, 552, 417 S.E.2d 756, 765 (1992) (quoting State v. Moore, 300 N.C. 694, 697, 268 S.E.2d 196, 199 (1980)). Accordingly, "prior consistent sta......
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