State v. Garcell

Citation678 S.E.2d 618,363 N.C. 10
Decision Date20 March 2009
Docket NumberNo. 465A06.,465A06.
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Ryan Gabriel GARCELL.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

Appeal as of right pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-27(a) from a judgment imposing a sentence of death entered on 4 April 2006 by Judge James U. Downs in Superior Court, Rutherford County, upon a jury verdict finding defendant guilty of first-degree murder. On 19 July 2007, the Supreme Court allowed defendant's motion to bypass the Court of Appeals as to his appeal of additional judgments. On 7 December 2007, defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief in this Court. Heard in the Supreme Court 5 May 2008.

Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Robert C. Montgomery, Special Deputy Attorney General, and Daniel P. O'Brien, Assistant Attorney General, for the State.

Staples S. Hughes, Appellate Defender, by Anne M. Gomez, Assistant Appellate Defender; and Center for Death Penalty Litigation, by Thomas K. Maher, for defendant-appellant.

BRADY, Justice.

On 22 June 2004, defendant Ryan Gabriel Garcell robbed seventy-one year old Margaret Hutchins Bennick (Mrs. Bennick or victim) in her residence with the use of a firearm and then strangled her to death. On 30 March 2006, a Rutherford County jury declared defendant guilty of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. Defendant was sentenced to death for the first-degree murder. After reviewing the record and arguments of counsel, we find no error in defendant's convictions or sentences.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Rutherford County Grand Jury returned a true bill of indictment on 12 July 2004 charging defendant with robbery with a dangerous weapon, a true bill of indictment on 27 September 2004 charging defendant with conspiracy to commit armed robbery, and a superseding true bill of indictment on 8 February 2006 charging defendant with first-degree murder. Defendant was tried capitally, and the jury returned verdicts of guilty on all charges on 30 March 2006. Following the required penalty proceeding, the jury made a binding recommendation on 4 April 2006 that defendant be sentenced to death, and the trial court entered judgment accordingly. The trial court also sentenced defendant to consecutive prison terms of 77 to 102 months for robbery with a dangerous weapon and 29 to 44 months for the conspiracy conviction. Defendant appeals the judgment of the trial court sentencing him to death pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-27(a). Defendant's additional judgments are also before us because we allowed his motion to bypass the Court of Appeals as to his noncapital convictions.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

In June 2004 defendant and his girlfriend, Kaylee Proctor, resided in a mobile home belonging to defendant's half sister and her boyfriend in Rutherford County. Proctor was pregnant with defendant's child. Neither defendant nor Proctor was gainfully employed, and the couple were in need of cash. Proctor initiated discussions with defendant about robbing Mrs. Bennick, who resided several miles from them on Old Caroleen Road. Mrs. Bennick had lived in Rutherford County all her life and worked part-time at a Goody's Family Clothing store. Proctor knew Mrs. Bennick from Proctor's earlier relationship with Mrs. Bennick's grandson.

The Crimes

Defendant and Proctor agreed to rob Mrs. Bennick. At their residence on 22 June 2004, defendant and Proctor divulged their plan to three of their friends, Jerome, Anthony, and Quntia Davis.1 As defendant described the plan, he pointed a firearm at one of the boys, saying they could go along or stay at the residence "and be dead too." The three friends felt intimidated into accompanying defendant and Proctor. Shortly before leaving to carry out the robbery, defendant telephoned Mrs. Bennick's residence to confirm she was at home.2 Defendant stated he would have to kill Mrs. Bennick after robbing her.

Defendant, Proctor, Jerome, Anthony, and Quntia traveled to Mrs. Bennick's residence in defendant's vehicle, with Proctor providing directions. When they arrived, defendant made them wear latex gloves that he had brought. Defendant and Proctor went to the side door of the residence. When Mrs. Bennick came to the door, Proctor asked if Mrs. Bennick's grandson, Proctor's ex-boyfriend, was at the residence and then asked to use the telephone. Mrs. Bennick welcomed Proctor and defendant into her residence. At first they were pleasant with Mrs. Bennick, but Proctor became upset when Mrs. Bennick stated several times that she did not have any money. Defendant then grabbed the victim and placed his firearm to her head.

Proctor motioned for Jerome, Anthony, and Quntia to leave the vehicle and come inside the residence. Inside, Jerome and Anthony saw the victim lying facedown on the floor in a bedroom at the rear of the residence, and defendant was pointing his firearm at her. Jerome heard the victim begging, "Don't kill me," and promising she would not "call the cops" if defendant let her live. Defendant told his victim to be quiet or he would kill her. Defendant and Proctor told Jerome, Anthony, and Quntia to search for valuables. They ransacked the residence and carried groceries, a VCR, a game console, jewelry, a coin collection, and clothes outside to the vehicle. The victim pleaded with defendant to take anything he wanted as long as he did not kill her. Defendant stole the victim's automated teller machine (ATM) card and retrieved from her checkbook the personal identification number (PIN) required to access the victim's bank account.

Defendant then asked Proctor what she thought they should do with Mrs. Bennick. Proctor stated, "She can point me out. You are going to have to kill her. They are going to know who I am." For approximately ten minutes, defendant contemplated what to do while Proctor repeatedly encouraged him to kill the victim. Defendant told Jerome to come to the rear bedroom of the residence and to send Anthony and Quntia to the vehicle. As Anthony was leaving for the vehicle, he heard a gurgling sound coming from the rear bedroom. Jerome held the firearm while defendant sat on his victim's back and strangled her with his right arm around her neck. Proctor went outside to smoke a cigarette. When his victim ceased struggling or moving at all, defendant retrieved Proctor so she could check the victim's pulse. Jerome went to wait in the vehicle.

Approximately five minutes later, and after ransacking the residence, defendant and Proctor returned to the vehicle where Jerome, Anthony, and Quntia waited. With a smile on his face, defendant told them how he had "choked" and "killed" his victim and warned that they better not "get cold feet" or they might "end up dead like that woman." Anthony testified defendant told them how, after strangling the victim, he wrapped an electrical extension cord around her neck and rode her limp body like a horse, saying, "Giddy up, giddy up." Defendant tied one end of the cord around his victim's neck and the other end around a bedpost in an attempt to make the murder appear like a suicide.

The group returned to defendant's residence for a short time and stored some of the stolen items in defendant's bedroom. They then went to defendant's mother's residence and presented her with some of the victim's jewelry, the coin collection, and the VCR as birthday presents. Defendant's mother inquired about his activities, and defendant confessed to the murder. Defendant's mother suggested ways to conceal his identity so he could use the stolen ATM card without being apprehended by law enforcement. The group traveled to various locations that night and the next night and used the ATM card. Before access to the victim's bank account was blocked on 25 June 2004, $1,790.35 in cash was fraudulently obtained.

The day after the murder, 23 June 2004, the victim's coworkers called her sister when she failed to arrive for her 5:00 p.m. work shift. Mrs. Bennick's grandson went to her residence and found it in disarray. He found her body in a rear bedroom of the residence with an electrical extension cord wrapped around her neck and tied to a bedpost.

Law enforcement immediately began an investigation. The crime scene yielded several items of direct and circumstantial evidence. The kitchen and other rooms were ransacked; a latex glove was found on the kitchen counter; latent fingerprint impressions indicated that the perpetrators wore gloves; and an ashtray with cigarette butts laid on the floor next to the victim's body.

During the last week of June 2004, defendant and his friend, Nate Whiteside, were shopping at a retail store when Nate noticed a newspaper story reporting the murder. Nate knew the victim, so he discussed the story with defendant. Defendant's reaction seemed unusual, making Nate suspicious. In response to Nate's persistent questioning, defendant confessed to the murder, described how he committed it, and showed Nate his firearm.

On 2 July 2004, the day after defendant's confession to him, Nate contacted law enforcement officials who asked him to telephone defendant and speak with him more about the crimes so that the conversation could be recorded. That evening Nate telephoned defendant. Defendant made incriminating statements that were recorded and subsequently admitted into evidence at trial.

Law enforcement received additional information on 2 July 2004. Francia Lopez, defendant's older half sister with whom defendant and Proctor resided, learned of the victim's death and suspected defendant and Proctor may have been involved. She remembered their arrival at the residence on the evening of the murder carrying bags of groceries and other items. Several days after the murder, Lopez and Proctor traveled in defendant's vehicle to a retail store. Lopez asked Proctor if she and defendant were involved in the murder, and eventually, Proctor admitted the details of the crimes. Worried that defendant would harm...

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