State v. Eason, No. 485A89

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
Citation328 N.C. 409,402 S.E.2d 809
Decision Date03 April 1991
Docket NumberNo. 485A89
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Jerry Wayne EASON.

Page 809

402 S.E.2d 809
328 N.C. 409
STATE of North Carolina
Jerry Wayne EASON.
No. 485A89.
Supreme Court of North Carolina.
April 3, 1991.

Page 811

[328 N.C. 415] Appeal of right pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-27(a) from a judgment imposing a sentence of life imprisonment for first degree murder entered by Grant, J., at the 17 July 1989 Criminal Session of Superior Court, Lenoir County. On 21 December 1989, the Supreme Court allowed the defendant's motion to bypass the Court of Appeals on the appeal of his first degree arson conviction. Heard in the Supreme Court on 12 December 1990.

Lacy H. Thornburg, Atty. Gen., by G. Patrick Murphy, Asst. Atty. Gen., Raleigh, for the State.

William D. Spence, Kinston, and T. Dewey Mooring, LaGrange, for defendant-appellant.

MITCHELL, Justice.

The defendant Jerry Wayne Eason was tried non-capitally upon proper bills of indictment charging him with first degree murder and arson of a mobile home. A jury found the defendant guilty of both offenses as charged. The trial court then entered judgment sentencing the defendant to imprisonment for life for the first degree murder conviction and to a consecutive term of imprisonment for thirty years for the arson conviction. On appeal, the defendant brings forward numerous assignments of error which we address seriatim. We conclude that the defendant received a fair trial free from prejudicial error.

The State's evidence at trial tended to show that on 4 August 1988, Guy Vernon Warren was found dead amongst the burned remains of his mobile home. He was last seen alive at approximately 11:45 p.m. on 3 August 1988. The victim's body was charred all over with the exception of a small area on the front which had been against the floor, and the facial features were burned beyond recognition. A neighbor could identify the victim's body only by [328 N.C. 416] a scar on the neck. An autopsy revealed that the victim had been shot three times in the chest.

SBI Agent Phillip Brinkley who investigated the scene opined that the fire was of an incendiary origin ignited by an open flame source next to the point where the body was found in the center of the mobile home where the victim's bedroom had been located. Near the mobile home the agent observed a pickup truck the victim had been using, which was owned by Terry Moore. All four tires on the vehicle bore slash marks and were flat.

Dennis Hayes testified that approximately three weeks before the murder, the defendant suffered facial cuts during a fight

Page 812

with the victim. Hayes further testified that he and the defendant discussed the fight while they were shooting pool on 3 August 1988. During the conversation, the defendant stated he was going to get even.

Phillip Mitchum testified that he was with the defendant until 2:30 a.m. on 4 August 1988. When the defendant got out of Mitchum's truck, Mitchum saw the handle of a small gun wrapped in a cloth in defendant's possession.

Melissa Bush, a nine-year-old girl, testified that the defendant was in her home on the evening of 3 August 1988. She testified that he pulled out a gun and said, "I want to kill somebody tonight."

Sandy Potter, Melissa's mother, testified that the defendant came to her house with Mitchum at about 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. on 3 August 1988. Potter was living at the time with the defendant's half-brother. Potter said the defendant was upset and had been drinking. He had a small gun with him, which she identified as being similar to State's Exhibit No. 7, a .25 caliber Raven automatic pistol. The defendant kept saying that he was going to get back at somebody who had "messed him up." Earlier in the day, Potter had seen the defendant with a long knife at his house. She identified that knife as being the same knife that was recovered from the defendant's house during a search by investigators.

Roger Brown and Raeford Page testified that they had previously co-owned a .25 caliber automatic pistol which Page sold to the defendant for $35.00. They had fired that pistol and other guns at a point behind Brown's home. During the investigation of the victim Warren's death, an investigator went with them to that site and recovered six spent projectiles and four spent shell casings.

[328 N.C. 417] Captain Lester Gosnell of the Lenoir County Sheriff's Department testified that the defendant was arrested at approximately 10:27 a.m. on 4 August 1988 and taken to the sheriff's department where he was read his Miranda rights. After waiving his Miranda rights, the defendant stated that he came home at 11:00 p.m. on 3 August 1988 and stayed there until he was arrested. He stated that he had been in a fight with the victim on an earlier date. During that incident, the victim had hit the defendant causing an injury to his mouth which required twenty stitches. The defendant said he did not own any firearms other than a 7.35 millimeter bolt action rifle and did not know about anything happening to the victim; however, he added that whatever the victim got, he deserved. A search of the defendant's residence pursuant to a search warrant produced a large knife, an empty box of Federal .25 caliber automatic bullets, and a spent .25 caliber shell casing.

Susan Komar, an SBI Agent, was qualified as an expert in firearms and tool mark identification and gave her opinion that the .25 caliber shell casing found at the defendant's home and two of the spent .25 caliber shell casings recovered behind Brown's home had been fired from the same gun. Moreover, she testified that the three .25 caliber projectiles removed from the victim and the six .25 caliber projectiles found behind Brown's home had been fired by the same weapon. She stated that the projectiles were consistent with either Remington or Federal manufactured ammunition. In addition, she compared the cuts in the four tires of the pickup truck at the victim's home with a test cut made using the knife found in the defendant's home. She testified that the knife found in the defendant's residence made the cut in one of the tires. The other three tire cuts had microscopic characteristics similar to the test cut, but she could not make a conclusive match.

After the defendant was arrested, he underwent an evaluation at Dorothea Dix Hospital. During the evaluation period, he and Sandy Potter corresponded by letter. Potter testified that in one of his letters to her, the defendant indicated that "he was satisfied that the SOB knew who he was before he died."

The defendant introduced no evidence at trial.


The Defendant's Appeal

By his first assignment of error, the defendant contends that the trial court erred

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in refusing to require his mother, Doris T. [328 N.C. 418] Hoffman, to answer questions during a voir dire hearing concerning the defendant's motion to suppress items seized pursuant to a search warrant. The defendant's attack on the search warrant focused on the alleged use of untruthful information to establish probable cause for the issuance. During the voir dire hearing on the defendant's motion, Captain Gosnell testified that Doris Hoffman met him on the morning of 4 August 1988 at the Lenoir County Sheriff's Department. She said the defendant had told her that earlier that morning he had shot Guy Warren three times and set Warren's mobile home on fire. She also stated that the defendant had admitted slicing the tires on a vehicle owned by Terry Moore.

Gosnell relied upon the information supplied by Hoffman in his affidavit establishing probable cause for the search warrant. On 11 January 1989, Hoffman testified under oath in a bond hearing and admitted talking to Gosnell on 4 August 1988 but denied telling him that the defendant had said anything about killing Warren.

After Gosnell testified during the voir dire hearing on the defendant's motion to suppress, the defendant called Hoffman who, after answering preliminary questions, invoked her fifth amendment privilege against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions concerning anything the defendant may have told her about killing Guy Warren or questions concerning anything she may have told Gosnell on the morning of 4 August 1988. When Hoffman invoked the privilege and refused to answer questions, the defendant requested that the trial court compel her to answer. The trial court denied all such requests.

At the conclusion of Hoffman's testimony, the trial court had the prosecutor state for the record the nature of the charges pending against Hoffman. The prosecutor noted for the record that based on her testimony at the 11 January 1989 bond hearing, Hoffman had been charged with giving false information to a police officer. She had been convicted of that charge in district court, and the case was then on appeal for trial de novo in superior court.

An individual has the right to invoke her fifth amendment privilege to avoid being compelled to give testimony which might make her subject to prosecution under state or federal laws. U.S. Const. amend. V.; N.C. Const. art. I § 23. When the individual invokes the fifth amendment privilege, the trial court must determine whether the question is such that it may reasonably be inferred that the answer may be self-incriminating. See, e.g., Hoffman [328 N.C. 419] v. United States, 341 U.S. 479, 486-87, 71 S.Ct. 814, 818-19, 95 L.Ed. 1118, 1124 (1951); Lafontaine v. Southern Underwriters, 83 N.C. 132, 139 (1880). In situations where the trial court determines that the answer will not be self-incriminating, the trial court may compel the individual to answer the question. Id. In this case, at the time of the voir dire hearing, Hoffman had been convicted of giving false information to the police about the defendant and her case was on appeal for trial de novo in superior court. When Hoffman invoked her privilege at the voir dire hearing, she was being asked to testify about the very incident which led to her conviction and for which she still faced trial de...

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