State v. Jones, 218A00.

Citation558 S.E.2d 97
Decision Date01 February 2002
Docket NumberNo. 218A00.,218A00.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Kevin Douglas JONES.

Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by David F. Hoke, Assistant Attorney General, and William P. Hart, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State.

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

ORR, Justice.

In a superseding indictment issued on 30 August 1999, defendant was charged with the first-degree murder of Ronald Ray Mabe. He was tried capitally at the 10 April 2000 Criminal Session of Superior Court, Forsyth County. The jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder on three theories—premeditation and deliberation, felony murder, and lying in wait—and, on 21 April 2000, after a capital sentencing proceeding, recommended a sentence of death. The trial judge entered judgment accordingly, and defendant filed a timely notice of appeal to this Court.

After consideration of the questions presented by defendant and a thorough review of the transcript of the proceedings, the record on appeal, the briefs, and oral arguments, we find: (1) no error meriting reversal of defendant's conviction, and (2) reversible error in defendant's capital sentencing proceeding. As a consequence of so holding, it is unnecessary for us to address at this time defendant's additional contention that his death sentence was disproportionate.

Evidence presented during the guilt portion of the trial tended to show that on the evening of 9 November 1998, defendant went to the home of a friend, Samuel Evans, Jr. Defendant told Evans he had traded his car to Evans' brother for some crack cocaine. The two then proceeded to smoke the drugs in one of Evans' cars, which was parked on the property. After consuming the contraband, defendant apparently became concerned that his grandfather would be upset over the loss of his car and that he needed to get it back. He told Evans that he was going to his uncle's house to see "if [he] could borrow some money or something," and he left. Evans testified that he did not know if the victim, Ronald Mabe, was in fact defendant's uncle, but he knew defendant was referring to Mr. Mabe, who lived nearby. Lynda Reed lived with defendant's father in Albertville, Alabama, in November of 1998. She testified that defendant arrived at their home on 18 November, and that the two had a conversation about Mr. Mabe. According to Ms. Reed, defendant asked if she knew that Mr. Mabe was dead, and she told him "no." When she asked what had happened to Mr. Mabe, defendant started to cry and said, "It was me. I am the one who killed him." After defendant recounted his involvement with Mr. Evans on 9 November, he told Ms. Reed that he went to Mr. Mabe's home because he knew that Mr. Mabe kept money there. He said he planned "to take what he could" in order "to get money for more crack and to get his car back." He then told Ms. Reed that while he was on the way to Mr. Mabe's home, he picked up a two-by-four he found on the side of the road. Ms. Reed further testified that defendant told her that he proceeded to the Mabe home and that he initially struck the victim with the two-by-four when Mr. Mabe answered the door. After the victim fell and began to scream, defendant said he became frightened that someone might hear the commotion, so he struck Mr. Mabe again. According to Ms. Reed, defendant said he struck Mr. Mabe three times in all, and told her that when the victim was finally rendered helpless, defendant took Mr. Mabe's wallet and a handgun hidden under a bed mattress. Other evidence at trial showed that defendant returned to the Evans residence shortly after the murder and that defendant and Evans traded the stolen gun for crack cocaine later that same night.

Upon hearing defendant's story, Ms. Reed told defendant's father that defendant could not remain in the house. Defendant and his father left shortly thereafter. Ms. Reed later informed the local police about what defendant had told her.

The victim's wallet was later found in a wooded area not far from his home. Police also seized a bloody two-by-four from behind a neighbor's woodshed. A forensic serologist determined that the bloodstains on the wood were of human blood, and a forensic chemist concluded that at least one of two hairs found on the wood were "microscopically consistent with the head hair of Ronald Mabe." Other expert testimony offered by the State tended to show that the victim died of blunt trauma to the head, and that the victim had sustained a series of blunt-trauma injuries. The injuries were consistent with being struck numerous times by a two-by-four.

On appeal to this Court, defendant brings forth eleven questions for review—three dealing with the guilt-innocence portion of his trial, and eight dealing with his sentencing proceeding, including proportionality review.

Jury Selection and Guilt-Innocence Phase Issues

Defendant first contends that he was prejudiced by the exclusion of a prospective juror based upon her responses to questions about her opposition to the death penalty and her apparent inability to impose such a sentence. In defendant's summary view, the voir dire of venire woman Karen Strausser failed to demonstrate she would be unable to meet her obligations as a capital juror and that, as a consequence of such failing, her dismissal from the jury panel was improper. We disagree.

The test for determining when a prospective juror may be excused for cause is whether his or her views "would `prevent or substantially impair the performance of his duties as a juror in accordance with his instructions and his oath.'" Wainwright v. Witt, 469 U.S. 412, 424, 105 S.Ct. 844, 852, 83 L.Ed.2d 841, 849 (1985) (quoting Adams v. Texas, 448 U.S. 38, 45, 100 S.Ct. 2521, 2526, 65 L.Ed.2d 581, 589 (1980)). Although the fact that a prospective juror voiced reservations about capital punishment or expressed conscientious or religious scruples against its imposition is not, in itself, a sufficient basis for excusal, see Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 522, 88 S.Ct. 1770, 1777, 20 L.Ed.2d 776, 785 (1968),

we note that the final decision to excuse a prospective juror is within the discretion of the trial court because "`there will be situations where the trial judge is left with the definite impression that a prospective juror would be unable to faithfully and impartially apply the law,'" State v. Nobles, 350 N.C. 483, 495, 515 S.E.2d 885, 893 (1999) (quoting Wainwright, 469 U.S. at 425-426,

105 S.Ct. at 852-853, 83 L.Ed.2d at 852); see also N.C.G.S. § 15A-1212(8) (1999) (providing that a challenge for cause may be made on the grounds that a juror would be unable to render a verdict in accordance with the laws of North Carolina). Moreover, in a case in which a prospective juror's responses were "at best equivocal," this Court concluded that it "must defer to the trial court's judgment as to whether the prospective juror could impartially follow the law." State v. Bowman, 349 N.C. 459, 471, 509 S.E.2d 428, 436 (1998),

cert. denied, 527 U.S. 1040, 119 S.Ct. 2403, 144 L.Ed.2d 802 (1999).

The juror in question here, Ms. Strausser, was questioned at length by the attorneys for both parties about both her feelings regarding the death penalty and her ability to render a decision that complied with the law. From the outset, Ms. Strausser expressed a straightforward opposition to capital punishment in general and explained that it was religion-based. Nevertheless, when asked whether she could set aside her sentiments and faithfully apply the law, Ms. Strausser initially told the court that she could "if [she] had to." Further inquiry into the matter by the trial judge, the defense, and the prosecution revealed a number of ambivalent, if not contradictory, responses. At one point, Ms. Strausser said that "if [she] had to choose the death penalty, then, by law, [she'd] have to do it"—ostensibly, a qualifying answer. However, she also expressed her opposition to the death penalty numerous times, explained that she would have problems living with herself if she imposed such a penalty, and stated more than once that her religious beliefs would impair her ability to be a fair juror. Moreover, when asked if she would always vote for life imprisonment, Ms. Strausser nodded affirmatively.

Ultimately, the equivocating nature of her responses, in light of the "totality of what she said," led the trial judge to conclude that Ms. Strausser "would be unable to faithfully and impartially apply the law in this case." Consequently, he allowed the State's challenge for cause. See State v. Smith, 352 N.C. 531, 545, 532 S.E.2d 773, 783 (2000)

(holding that the question of whether a juror's bias makes him excusable for cause is "the court's decision, in the exercise of its sound discretion and judgment"), cert. denied, 532 U.S. 949, 121 S.Ct. 1419, 149 L.Ed.2d 360 (2001). We find nothing in the record suggesting that the trial judge abused the discretion accorded him under the circumstances. Amid a lengthy questioning period, he afforded counsel wide latitude, asked questions himself, assessed the prospective juror's responses for their overall effect, and made a decision based on his firsthand impressions. Thus, absent any evidence of discretionary abuse, "we must defer to the trial court's judgment as to whether the prospective juror could impartially follow the law." Bowman, 349 N.C. at 471,

509 S.E.2d at 436. As a result, we conclude that defendant's assignment of error on this issue is without merit.

Defendant next argues that the trial court erred when it denied defendant the opportunity to question a juror who was excused for cause. In sum, defendant concludes that the prospective juror, Vicki Kelley, had not expressed an unequivocal opposition to the death penalty during questioning by the prosecution, and thus she was eligible for rehabilitative questioning by the defense. We disagree with both contentions.


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