State v. Hooks, 89A00.

Citation353 N.C. 629,548 S.E.2d 501
Decision Date20 July 2001
Docket NumberNo. 89A00.,89A00.
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Cerron Thomas HOOKS.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Roy A. Cooper, Attorney General, by William N. Farrell, Jr., Senior Deputy Attorney General, and Ellen B. Scouten, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State.

J. Clark Fischer, Winston-Salem, for defendant-appellant.

PARKER, Justice.

Defendant Cerron Thomas Hooks was indicted on 19 October 1998 for the first-degree murder of Michael Miller. Defendant was tried capitally and found guilty of first-degree murder on the basis of premeditation and deliberation. Following a capital sentencing proceeding, the jury recommended a sentence of death; and the trial court entered judgment accordingly.

The State's evidence tended to show that on 5 September 1998 the victim invited friends to a pool party at the apartment complex where the victim resided. Shortly after the party started, defendant went to the pool area and joined the gathering. Defendant was drinking beer at the pool, although witnesses testified that he did not appear to be intoxicated. Around 9:30 that night, the victim invited the guests at the pool back to his apartment to continue the party.

Later that night, the victim's roommate saw defendant playing outside the apartment with a .45-caliber "automatic" pistol equipped with a laser scope. A short time later defendant returned to the apartment and began looking for a shirt that he had taken off in the apartment earlier in the evening. The victim told defendant that he had not seen the shirt and that he would return it to a mutual friend should he find it later. Defendant then "got loud" and began searching the apartment for his shirt, eventually entering the victim's closed bedroom. The victim told defendant that defendant "can't disrespect his house" and asked defendant to leave. While defendant was walking towards the door to leave, he and the victim "had words" back and forth, culminating in defendant telling the victim just outside the front door, "you ain't going to disrespect me in front of them bitches."

As defendant was walking down the stairs outside the apartment, the victim followed defendant down to the ground level to make sure that he left. Defendant and the victim continued arguing face to face at the bottom of the stairs. Defendant stated that he was going to "f—k [the victim] up." The victim began backing away, and defendant pulled a.38 caliber handgun from his pocket and pointed it at the victim's face. The victim said, "Oh, you're going to shoot me now"; and after a "silent moment," defendant shot the victim four times.

The victim fell to the ground; and defendant began kicking him in the face and chest, pistol-whipping him, and taunting him by saying, "you thought I was playing, you thought I was playing." Defendant then fled the scene. The victim remained conscious and in obvious extreme pain for at least fifteen minutes after the shooting while a neighbor administered aid. Officers with the Winston-Salem Police Department apprehended defendant on 8 September 1998. At the time, defendant, with a fully loaded nine-millimeter Luger in his hand, was crouching behind a retainer wall at the top of a stairwell.

The medical examiner who autopsied the victim's body found four gunshot entry wounds: one in the face, which broke the victim's jaw and went through his tongue; one in the abdomen, which traveled through the victim's liver; one in the victim's left arm, which traveled completely through the arm; and one in the upper back, fragments of which lodged in the victim's neck and cheek. The victim died approximately twelve hours after the shooting as a result of the gunshot wounds.


In his only assignment of error relating to the guilt-innocence phase of the trial, defendant contends that the trial court committed plain error while instructing the jury by defining reasonable doubt in a manner that was legally incorrect and that lowered the State's burden of proof. We disagree.

The trial court gave the following instruction defining reasonable doubt:

Now, a reasonable doubt, members of the jury, means exactly what it says. It's not a mere possible, it's not an academic and it's not a forced doubt. There are few things in human experience which are beyond all doubt or which are beyond a shadow of a doubt, nor is it a doubt suggested by the ingenuity of counsel for either side or even by your own ingenuity of mind, not legitimate or warranted by the evidence and the testimony you've heard in this case. Of course, your reason and your common sense would tell you that a doubt wouldn't be reasonable if it was founded upon or suggested by any of these type [sic] of considerations.
A reasonable doubt is a doubt based on reason and common sense arising out of all or some of the evidence—excuse me, out of some or all of the evidence that has been presented or the lack of or insufficiency of the evidence as the case may be. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof that fully satisfies or entirely convinces you of the defendant's guilt.

We initially note that "[a]bsent a specific request, the trial court is not required to define reasonable doubt, but if the trial court undertakes to do so, the definition must be substantially correct." State v. Miller, 344 N.C. 658, 671, 477 S.E.2d 915, 923 (1996). Furthermore,

so long as the court instructs the jury on the necessity that the defendant's guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, see Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 320, n. 14[, 99 S.Ct. 2781, 2790, n. 14, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, 574, n. 14] (1979),

the Constitution does not require that any particular form of words be used in advising the jury of the government's burden of proof. Cf. Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 485-486[, 98 S.Ct. 1930, 1934-35, 56 L.Ed.2d 468, 475] (1978). Rather, "taken as a whole, the instructions [must] correctly conve[y] the concept of reasonable doubt to the jury." Holland v. United States, 348 U.S. 121, 140[, 75 S.Ct. 127, 138, 99 L.Ed. 150, 167] (1954).

Victor v. Nebraska, 511 U.S. 1, 5, 114 S.Ct. 1239, 1243, 127 L.Ed.2d 583, 590 (1994). Upon appeal "the proper inquiry is not whether the instruction `could have' been applied in an unconstitutional manner, but whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the jury did so apply it." Id. at 6, 114 S.Ct. at 1243, 127 L.Ed.2d at 591.

The trial court gave defendant numerous opportunities to object to the jury instructions outside the presence of the jury, and each time defendant indicated his satisfaction with the trial court's instructions. Having failed to object to this instruction at trial, defendant did not properly preserve this issue for review; therefore, we review the record to determine whether the instruction constituted plain error. N.C. R.App. P. 10(b)(2); State v. Hardy, 353 N.C. 122, 131, 540 S.E.2d 334, 342 (2000).

Under a plain error analysis, defendant is entitled to a new trial only if the error was so fundamental that, absent the error, the jury probably would have reached a different result. State v. Collins, 334 N.C. 54, 62, 431 S.E.2d 188, 193 (1993). "[E]ven when the `plain error' rule is applied, `[i]t is the rare case in which an improper instruction will justify reversal of a criminal conviction when no objection has been made in the trial court.'" State v. Odom, 307 N.C. 655, 660-61, 300 S.E.2d 375, 378 (1983) (quoting Henderson v. Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 154, 97 S.Ct. 1730, 1736, 52 L.Ed.2d 203, 212 (1977)). Furthermore, in reviewing jury instructions this Court has stated:

"`The charge of the court must be read as a whole ..., in the same connected way that the judge is supposed to have intended it and the jury to have considered it....' State v. Wilson, 176 N.C. 751, [754-55,] 97 S.E. 496[, 497] (1918). It will be construed contextually, and isolated portions will not be held prejudicial when the charge as [a] whole is correct. If the charge presents the law fairly and clearly to the jury, the fact that some expressions, standing alone, might be considered erroneous will afford no ground for reversal."

State v. Rich, 351 N.C. 386, 393-94, 527 S.E.2d 299, 303 (2000) (quoting State v. Lee, 277 N.C. 205, 214, 176 S.E.2d 765, 770 (1970) (citations omitted)) (alterations in original).

Defendant acknowledges that various versions of the above instruction have been upheld in other cases. See State v. Lambert, 341 N.C. 36, 52, 460 S.E.2d 123, 132-33 (1995)

; State v. Adams, 335 N.C. 401, 420, 439 S.E.2d 760, 770 (1994). However, defendant argues that those cases upheld the instructions on other grounds and did not explicitly approve the language defendant finds objectionable here. Assuming arguendo that defendant's interpretation of the bases underlying the holdings in Lambert and Adams is correct, we decline to find plain error in the language about which defendant complains.

Defendant first contends that the phrase "it's not an academic doubt" lessens the State's burden of proof. Defendant cites a definition from the 1995 edition Microsoft Bookshelf, a computer reference source, as evidence that the word "academic" normally relates to school, higher education, learning, and scholarship.1 Thus, defendant argues, this phrase effectively instructs the jury to forgo intellectual analysis in reviewing the evidence. However, defendant's own cited authority also defines "academic" as "scholarly to the point of being unaware of the outside world" and "theoretical or speculative without a practical purpose or intention." American Heritage Dictionary 9 (3d ed.1992). Furthermore, the cited definition suggests the words "pedantic" and "theoretical" as possible synonyms. Id.

The phrase in question, when read in context, would, in our judgment, be interpreted by an ordinary juror to mean that a mere theoretical or speculative doubt is insufficient to constitute reasonable doubt. Immediately before the phrase in question—"it's not an...

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