State v. Johnson, 122118 NCSC, 57PA17

Docket Nº:57PA17
Attorney:Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Derrick C. Mertz, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellant/appellee. Marilyn G. Ozer for defendant-appellant/appellee.
Judge Panel:Justice HUDSON concurring in result.
Case Date:December 21, 2018
Court:Supreme Court of North Carolina




No. 57PA17

Supreme Court of North Carolina

December 21, 2018

Heard in the Supreme Court on 8 January 2018.

On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 795 S.E.2d 625 (2017), finding no prejudicial error after appeal from a judgment entered on 6 October 2015 by Judge Eric L. Levinson in Superior Court, Mecklenburg County. On 3 May 2017, the Supreme Court allowed defendant's conditional petition for discretionary review as to an additional issue.

Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Derrick C. Mertz, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellant/appellee.

Marilyn G. Ozer for defendant-appellant/appellee.


The Court of Appeals concluded that defendant's inculpatory statements to law enforcement were given under the influence of fear or hope caused by the interrogating officers' statements and actions and were therefore involuntarily made. State v. Johnson, __ N.C.App. __, __, 795 S.E.2d 625, 639-40 (2017). The unanimous Court of Appeals panel held that the confession should have been suppressed but concluded the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt due to the overwhelming evidence of defendant's guilt. Id. at__, 795 S.E.2d at 641. For the reasons stated below, we uphold the trial court's conclusion that, under the totality of the circumstances, defendant's inculpatory statements were voluntary. Therefore, we modify and affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.


In the early morning hours of 2 May 2007, three men robbed a Charlotte motel where the victim, Anita Jean Rychlik, worked as manager and her husband worked as a security guard. After pistol whipping and robbing the security guard in the parking lot, two of the men entered the victim's room, where the victim was shot once in the back of her neck and killed. The men escaped, and no one was charged in the murder until October 2011. DNA evidence collected from beneath the victim's fingernails and analyzed in 2009 indicated defendant was the likely contributor.

Defendant voluntarily met with detectives on 24 October 2011 at the police station, where he was questioned in an interview room for just under five hours before being placed under arrest and warned of his rights as required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, 16 L.Ed.2d 694 (1966). After being advised of his rights, defendant signed a written waiver of those rights and made inculpatory statements. Defendant was indicted on 7 November 2011 for first-degree murder for the killing of Rychlik.

Defendant was tried before Judge Eric L. Levinson at the 28 September 2015 criminal session of Superior Court, Mecklenburg County. On 6 October 2015, a jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder under the felony murder rule with armed robbery as the underlying felony. That same day, the trial court sentenced defendant to life imprisonment without parole.

Defendant made a number of pretrial motions, including a motion to suppress statements he made to law enforcement while being interrogated on 24 October 2011. Defendant argued that he was subjected to custodial interrogation before being informed of his rights as required by Miranda, and that his inculpatory statements were made in response to improper statements by detectives inducing a hope that his confession would benefit him. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, concluding that "[b]ased on the totality of the circumstances during the entirety of the interview, the statements made by Defendant were voluntary."

Defendant appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals, arguing that the trial court's findings of fact "seem[ed] to intentionally downplay the influence of hope and fear" during his interrogation and were insufficient to support its conclusion that the Miranda warnings in this case were effective under Missouri v. Seibert, 542 U.S. 600, 159 L.Ed.2d 643 (2004). The Court of Appeals panel determined that defendant was subject to custodial interrogation before being Mirandized and then analyzed whether the entirety of the interrogation, from the time defendant first should have been advised of his rights under Miranda until the time defendant made inculpatory statements, rendered those statements involuntary. Johnson, __ N.C.App. at __, 795 S.E.2d at 638-39.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the detectives used the "question first, warn later" technique held invalid in Seibert, but that defendant did not make inculpatory statements prior to being advised of his rights as required by Miranda. Id. at__, 795 S.E.2d at 637-38. Because of that distinction, the Court of Appeals did not determine whether the postwarning statement should have been suppressed under Miranda and Seibert, and instead analyzed the overall voluntariness of the statements. Id. at__, 795 S.E.2d at 637-38. The Court of Appeals held that the circumstances under which defendant made inculpatory statements were at least as coercive as those at issue in State v. Pruitt, 286 N.C. 442, 212 S.E.2d 92 (1975), and therefore, any statements given were involuntary and inadmissible. Johnson, __ N.C.App. at __, 795 S.E.2d at 638. Despite its conclusion that the statements should have been suppressed, the panel determined that admission of defendant's statements was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt due to the overwhelming additional evidence of defendant's guilt, including DNA evidence, eyewitness testimony, and accomplice testimony. Id. at__, 795 S.E.2d at 640-41. This Court allowed both the State's and defendant's petitions for discretionary review on 3 May 2017.


I. - Standard of Review

We evaluate a trial court's denial of a motion to suppress evidence to determine "whether competent evidence supports the trial court's findings of fact and whether the findings of fact support the conclusions of law." State v. Biber, 365 N.C. 162, 167-68, 712 S.E.2d 874, 878 (2011) (citing State v. Brooks, 337 N.C. 132, 140-41, 446 S.E.2d 579, 585 (1994)). If the trial court's findings of fact are supported by competent evidence, they "are conclusive on appeal, . . . even if the evidence is conflicting." State v. Hammonds, 370 N.C. 158, 161, 804 S.E.2d 438, 441 (2017) (quoting State v. Buchanan, 353 N.C. 332, 336, 543 S.E.2d 823, 826 (2001)). Conclusions of law, however, "are fully reviewable on appeal" and "must be legally correct, reflecting a correct application of applicable legal principles to the facts found." Id. at 161, 804 S.E.2d at 441 (first citing State v. Greene, 332 N.C. 565, 577, 422 S.E.2d 730, 737 (1992); then quoting Buchanan, 353 N.C. at 336, 543 S.E.2d at 826).

Determinations regarding the voluntariness of a defendant's waiver of his Miranda rights or the voluntariness of incriminating statements made during the course of interrogation are conclusions of law, which we review de novo. State v. Knight, 369 N.C. 640, 646, 799 S.E.2d 603, 608 (2017) (citation omitted); State v. Hardy, 339 N.C. 207, 222, 451 S.E.2d 600, 608 (1994) (citation omitted).

II. - Voluntariness and Miranda

At common law a confession obtained through inducements, promises, or threats of violence lacked the presumption of reliability ordinarily afforded such statements, and therefore, was not admissible at trial. State v. Roberts, 12 N.C. (1 Dev.) 259, 260 (1827) (per curiam) (declining to allow admission of a confession when "the defendant ha[d] been influenced by any threat or promise"); cf. Hopt v. Utah, 110 U.S. 574, 585, 28 L.Ed. 262, 267 (1884) (holding a confession admissible when not made as a result of inducements, threats, or promises preying on the "fears or hopes of the accused"). In short, "coerced confessions are inherently untrustworthy." Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428, 433, 147 L.Ed.2d 405, 412 (2000) (citations omitted).

Compliance with Miranda is a threshold requirement for admissibility of such statements when made as a result of custodial interrogation and does not abrogate the need for confessions to be obtained in compliance with traditional notions of due process under both the federal and state constitutions. Seibert, 542 U.S. at 617 n.8, 159 L.Ed.2d at 658 n.8 (plurality opinion) (declining to "assess the actual voluntariness of the statement" where Miranda warnings were inadequate); New York v. Quarles, 467 U.S. 649, 655 n.5, 81 L.Ed.2d 550, 556 n.5 (1984) (noting that "failure to provide Miranda warnings in and of itself does not render a confession involuntary" and suggesting the defendant was "free on remand to argue that his statement was coerced under traditional due process standards")." '[T]he mere fact that a suspect has made an unwarned admission does not warrant a presumption of compulsion'...

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