State v. Enoch, COA17-1248

Decision Date18 September 2018
Docket NumberNo. COA17-1248,COA17-1248
CourtNorth Carolina Court of Appeals
Parties STATE of North Carolina, Plaintiff, v. Rodney Lee ENOCH, Defendant.

Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Mary Carla Babb, for the State.

Appellate Defender Glenn Gerding, by Assistant Appellate Defender Anne M. Gomez, for Defendant-Appellant.


Rodney Lee Enoch ("Defendant") appeals from a 16 September 2016 judgment after a jury convicted him of one count of first degree murder. Following the jury verdict,1 the trial court sentenced Defendant to life imprisonment, without parole. Defendant asserts the trial court erred by: (1) not allowing him to rehabilitate jurors; (2) admitting evidence of two prior abusive relationships; (3) instructing the jury it could use prior assaults on the victim to show identity; (4) admitting an irrelevant and prejudicial document; (5) allowing the victim's skeleton to be displayed to the jury by denying his mistrial motion; and (6) denying him a fair trial due to cumulative error. We find no prejudicial error.

I. Factual and Procedural Background

On 14 October 2013, an Alamance County Grand Jury indicted Rodney Lee Enoch ("Defendant") on one count of first degree murder.

A. Jury Selection

On 15 August 2016, the trial court called Defendant's case for trial, and jury selection began. The State questioned a prospective juror, Terrance Copling. Copling stated he was familiar with Defendant's family, though he did not know Defendant himself. Copling stated he thought he could be impartial and fair to both sides in the case. When the State later pressed Copling, however, he admitted "having the connection to [Defendant's] dad or knowing his dad in the past ... will probably cause issues ...." The State made a motion to dismiss Copling as a juror for cause. Defendant asked the trial court for leave to rehabilitate Copling, in order to keep him on the jury. The court denied Defendant's request, and stated "[t]his is not a capital case." The trial court asked Copling, "Is it your position that due to your knowledge of the defendant's family that you could not fairly evaluate the evidence presented to you and be impartial to the State and the defendant?" Copling answered in the affirmative. Answering a clarifying question, Copling clearly agreed his feelings were "so strong" he could not be impartial. The trial court allowed the State's challenge for cause and excused Copling over Defendant's objection.

Outside the presence of the prospective jury, the trial court told Defendant he was "not entitled to ask questions to rehabilitate in any fashion[ ]" because "this [wa]s not a capital case." Defendant objected and argued, "I don't think whether it's capital or non-capital makes any difference." Defendant also noted he wished to rehabilitate other jurors, but did not "because [he] understood the [c]ourt's ruling to be that because it's not a capital case [he] wouldn't be able to ...." The court reiterated it had already ruled on the issue, but noted Defendant preserved the issue for the record.

After a brief recess, the trial court stated in pertinent part:

Just so there's no ambiguity at all on what the [c]ourt ruled upon with respect to the defendant's last objection regarding the juror Terrance Copling, we were having a conversation but I want to make sure the record is clear as to what the Court's rationale was for its ruling.
It has long been my understanding that in capital cases the defendant is entitled to rehabilitate jurors on the question of death qualification only and that's the only provision that I'm aware of that requires and does give the defendant such an opportunity.
As to questioning of jurors when the other party has the juror, it's long been my belief that the system was designed to at least potentially allow for that but it's generally not done. In my discretion I chose not to do it because, again, this is not a capital case. The rehabilitation question [is] only allowed—only required in capital cases.
... [T]he Court has exercised its discretion and will allow the parties to ask questions when they have the jurors and the other party will not be allowed ask questions during that aspect of the process.
B. Trial Court's General Findings of Fact

The evidence presented at trial led the court to find the following by a preponderance of the evidence: Debra Dianne Sellars ("Sellars") was last seen on 20 April 2012. Sellars’ children reported her missing on 24 April 2012. Defendant was Sellars’ on-again, off-again boyfriend. On 16 December 2011, Defendant assaulted Sellars. Defendant pleaded guilty to the assault. On 3 October 2012, a hunter discovered human skeletal remains in a wooded area on the property of 4280 Union Ridge Road, Burlington, North Carolina. DNA analysis confirmed the remains belonged to Sellars. Sellars’ assailant stabbed her to death and deposited her body at 4280 Union Ridge Road. Defendant objected to the trial court's findings of fact.

C. Testimony at Trial

The State called Chelsea Sellars ("Chelsea"), Sellars’ daughter. Chelsea first met Defendant in 2011 when he dated her mother. For a period of time in late 2011, Defendant lived with Sellars, Chelsea, and Sellars’ son Deandre Terrell ("Andre"). During that period, Chelsea noticed her mother's "face look[ed] a little different on occasion" due to heavier makeup application. From the time Defendant moved out, sometime in late 2011, to 20 April 2012, Chelsea did not notice her mother interacting with any other men. On 20 April 2012, a Friday, Chelsea got dressed for school, told her mother goodbye, and went to the bus stop at 7:30 a.m. When Chelsea got home from school on Friday around 3:15 p.m., her mother was not home. Over the weekend, Chelsea stayed in her room and played video games. She knew her mother was not home, "but it wasn't unusual for her to be gone over the weekend." On Monday, Chelsea became concerned when her mother still did not come home. On Tuesday, Chelsea went to school and informed her teacher "that [her] mother hadn't returned home over the weekend nor that Monday." The teacher sent Chelsea to the counselor who then contacted the police.2

The State called Andre. While Defendant and Sellars were dating, Andre recalled seeing his mother with a black eye and bruises on her face and neck. Andre later asked his mother if she was still seeing Defendant, and Sellars said "no." Andre suspected his mother still accepted phone calls from Defendant. On 20 April 2012, Andre stayed home from work with his mother. Around 4:00 p.m., Sellars received a phone call. Andre heard Sellars talking to "a male voice" from the other room, and he heard his mother say "that [she] will meet [them] at the hotel." Andre did not recognize the voice as Defendant's. Andre then told his mother he had to be at work the next morning. Sellars said she would be back in the morning so Andre could use the van to get to work. Sellars left around 5:00 p.m. Andre did not see or speak to his mother again. Andre called his mother later the same night to remind her he needed the car for work in the morning. Sellars did not pick up the phone, and she was not home the next morning at 6:00 a.m. when Andre got up for work. Andre continued to call his mother throughout weekend. On Saturday, Sellars’ phone rang, and then went to voicemail. On Sunday and Monday, Sellars’ phone went straight to voicemail without ringing.

The State called Justin Curtis ("Curtis"), an employee of a car dealership in Greensboro, North Carolina. In 2012, Curtis lived in Burlington, North Carolina, at his parents’ house, located next to 4280 Union Ridge Road. In October 2012, Curtis went deer hunting on the land next door. While surveying the land for signs of deer, Curtis saw something with a "bright, cream color" in the woods. Curtis didn't initially realize he discovered human remains. Curtis "pick[ed] up the skull" and took it back to his parents’ house, leaving the other remains behind. Curtis then called the Sheriff's Department. When a police officer arrived, with gloves on he picked up the skull and took it to his vehicle. A second officer then arrived with a K-9 unit, and Curtis took the officers to the location of the other human remains. Curtis identified the remains he saw on a photograph displayed for the court.

In voir dire , the State indicated it intended to "put some of the remains into evidence."

The State explained its "plan was to enter the skull, the ribs, and the femur." The remains were in a box and not individually labeled. The State argued it was "only entering what [it] felt [was] necessary for this trial." Defendant objected to the relevancy and evidentiary value of the skeletal remains, aside from "the four ribs." Specifically, Defendant argued Curtis would not be able to identify the skull as the one he found in the woods. Defendant also argued the State gained nothing from showing the skull, because no expert witness drew any conclusions from it. As to the State introducing the femur as a source of DNA, Defendant argued the actual femur added nothing to previously provided photographs.

The State countered "every single remain" had relevance to the case. Specifically, the State argued the skull was relevant "because that goes with [Sellars] and that also helps identify her and identify her race." Without Curtis’ identification of the skull, other witnesses would not be able to identify any of the remains. The trial court determined "403 and 401 [balancing] at this point are premature in my view because [the State's] not going to be moving it into evidence [at this time]." Defendant replied, "Then I have a question about how this witness can [identify the skull] and I would ask that at least the State do it in voir dire outside the presence of the jury." At the trial court's allowance, the State then broke the seal on the box during voir dire . Curtis identified Sellars’...

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