State v. Hurst

Decision Date27 January 2006
Docket NumberNo. 363A04.,363A04.
Citation624 S.E.2d 309
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Jason Wayne HURST.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Valerie B. Spalding, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State.

Staples S. Hughes, Appellate Defender, by Anne M. Gomez, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellant.

EDMUNDS, Justice.

Defendant Jason Wayne Hurst was indicted on 19 August 2002 for killing Daniel Lee Branch. Defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder both on the basis of malice, premeditation and deliberation and on the basis of felony murder. Following a capital sentencing proceeding, the jury found that the mitigating circumstances were insufficient to outweigh the aggravating circumstances and recommended a sentence of death. The trial court entered judgment on 17 March 2004.

On 9 June 2002, Daniel Branch told his wife Barbara that he and defendant were going to travel to Asheboro. According to Barbara, defendant was an acquaintance who was supposed to help Branch sell some firearms. After loading several long guns into his 1977 blue Thunderbird, Branch left home around 11:00 or 11:30 that morning. She never saw him alive again.

The next day, Barbara filed a missing persons report and Detective Kevin Ray of the High Point Police Department began an investigation. On 11 June 2002, while pursuing a lead that defendant had been seen in West Virginia driving a Thunderbird matching the description of Branch's vehicle, Detective Ray discovered that defendant had been romantically involved with Kim Persinger in West Virginia and that she was pregnant with his child. Kim's brother indicated to Detective Ray that Branch had been killed in North Carolina and that his body was in a field near the Montgomery and Randolph County line.

Detective Ray and High Point Police Detective Lieutenant Dick Shuping searched a large, cleared tract of land at the described location and found the body of Daniel Branch. The victim was lying on his back and one of his pockets had been pulled out. The investigators observed that he appeared to have suffered gunshot wounds to the torso and head. Two expended shotgun shell casings were found near his body.

That same day, state police and sheriffs in West Virginia began searching for defendant and the victim's blue Thunderbird. Acting on a tip, investigators located both at a convenience store near Rock Creek, where defendant was taken into custody without incident. During the arrest, defendant stated that "he was just glad that it was over" and that "he had killed a guy in North Carolina." Even though he was given his Miranda warnings, defendant continued to talk, repeating that he had killed a man in North Carolina with a shotgun and brought his car to West Virginia. Shortly thereafter, the arresting officers allowed defendant to visit the Persinger residence, where he spoke briefly with Kim and other members of her family. Defendant was then transported to the state police detachment in Beckley, where he again was advised of his Miranda rights. After waiving those rights, defendant confessed to the murder of Daniel Branch.

In his confession, defendant said that he knew Branch from having traded guns with him in the past. Defendant claimed that the victim called him the day before the murder and asked him to meet to trade some guns. Defendant said that "[he] knew [he] was going to kill [Branch]" as soon as their telephone conversation ended and "began to plan." The next day, defendant met Branch at the field where the killing occurred to purchase a twelve-gauge Mossberg pump shotgun. When defendant asked Branch if he could test-fire the weapon, the victim agreed. At defendant's urging, Branch walked into the field to set up some cans and bottles. As he did, defendant opened fire, shooting the victim three times.

After the first shot, which defendant indicated struck Branch in the ribs or stomach, the victim yelled "no, no, don't shoot," and turned to run. Defendant shot Branch again, hitting him in the side and causing him to fall. Defendant then walked toward the victim and shot him in the head. After the final shot, defendant reached into the victim's pocket, took his keys, and left the scene in Branch's car. An autopsy confirmed that Branch had suffered shotgun wounds in his lower left chest and abdominal area, in his right side, and in his right jaw.

Defendant told the officers that the Mossberg shotgun was at the house of a relative, Leon Burgess, where he had traded it for a .410 gauge shotgun. Burgess later confirmed the trade and gave the murder weapon to the investigators. A .410 gauge shotgun was recovered from the victim's Thunderbird that defendant had been driving when arrested. Defendant also stated that he had sold Branch's .22 caliber rifle.

During the interview, defendant said that the victim had not provoked or threatened him and declined to give a reason for the shooting. He said he did not know the victim that well, but that he was "an okay guy." Defendant stated that he was not sorry for killing Branch but that he felt sorry for the victim's family.

Defendant did not testify at trial. During the guilt phase of the trial, he presented instead James H. Hilkey, Ph.D., an expert forensic psychologist, who testified that defendant suffered from borderline personality disorder, traits of antisocial personality disorder, and depression. Dr. Hilkey stated that, in his opinion, defendant's psychological disorders "affected his ability to weigh and consider the consequences of his actions and to form specific intent to kill." Dr. Hilkey was also of the opinion that at the time of the shooting, defendant "was under the influence of a mental or emotional disturbance and his capacity to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law was impaired." However, Dr. Hilkey also testified that defendant's "clearly average" I.Q. was 104 and that he knew killing the victim was wrong. Dr. Hilkey found no signs that defendant suffered from neurological damage or distortions.

Additional facts will be set forth as necessary for the discussion of specific issues.


Defendant contends he is entitled to a new trial because the trial court failed to take appropriate action when it learned that a prospective alternate juror brought a newspaper article dealing with the trial into the jury room during jury selection. The record indicates that jury selection commenced on Tuesday, 2 March 2004, and by mid-morning Friday, 5 March 2004, twelve jurors had been seated. After consulting with counsel for the State and for defendant, the trial court elected to select three alternate jurors. Selection of the alternates began after the morning recess that same Friday and continued into the afternoon. After one alternate was chosen, prospective alternate juror Paul Biedrzycki was called. During voir dire, Biedrzycki stated that he had read a newspaper article concerning the case in the jury room "about half an hour ago." Biedrzycki was excused for cause, then questioned in greater detail as to the newspaper in the jury room. He explained that someone in the jury room had been reading a local newspaper article about the trial and he had asked if he could read it. The headline of the article was to the effect that defendant admitted guilt. Biedrzycki added that the newspaper had not been present in the room on either of the preceding days but was there when he returned to the jury room that afternoon.

Defense counsel moved for a mistrial based on the article's contents and the jury's disobedience of the trial court's prior instructions not to read any extraneous material. After hearing arguments from defendant and the State, the trial court observed that the twelve jurors already chosen had left the courthouse by the time the article appeared in the jury room, and denied the motion. Shortly thereafter, the trial court brought the remaining prospective alternate jurors into the courtroom, explicitly instructed them not to read any press accounts about the case nor bring any newspapers to court, then excused them for the weekend recess. The court also made arrangements to ensure that the prospective alternates who were scheduled to arrive the following Monday would not mix with the jurors who had already been chosen. The bailiff then retrieved the newspaper from the jury room and the court admitted into evidence as a pretrial exhibit the 5 March 2004 Randolph County edition of the News & Record that contained an article headlined "High Point man admits to killing."

The following Monday, sixteen prospective alternate jurors were individually questioned. Several reported that they had seen or read the article or heard it discussed in the jury room on the preceding Friday. One of the twelve admitted bringing newspapers into the jury room every day but added that the Friday paper was the only one that any other juror had borrowed and read. Of the two alternate jurors that were selected from this pool of twelve, one had read the Friday article but had heard no discussion about it and said he could disregard what he had read. The other said that he had seen but not read the newspaper and had not observed anyone else reading it.

We first address defendant's argument that the trial court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial. Upon motion by a defendant, "[t]he judge must declare a mistrial . . . if there occurs during the trial an error or legal defect in the proceedings, or conduct inside or outside the courtroom, resulting in...

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