State v. Kemmerlin, 182A01.

Citation356 N.C. 446, 573 S.E.2d 870
Case DateDecember 20, 2002
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by David Roy Blackwell, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State.

Kathryn L. VandenBerg, Hillsborough, for defendant-appellant.

WAINWRIGHT, Justice.

On 5 April 1999, Christene Knapp Kemmerlin (defendant) was indicted for the first-degree murder of her husband, Donald Wayne Kemmerlin; for conspiracy to commit murder; for solicitation to commit murder; and for robbery with a dangerous weapon. Defendant was tried capitally before a jury at the 18 September 2000 session of Superior Court, Rockingham County. The jury found defendant guilty of all charges. Following a capital sentencing proceeding, the jury recommended a sentence of death for the first-degree murder, and the trial court entered judgment in accordance with that recommendation. The trial court also sentenced defendant to consecutive sentences for the other convictions. For the reasons discussed herein, we conclude that the pre-trial issue, jury selection, guilt-innocence phase, and sentencing proceeding were free of prejudicial error but that the death sentence was disproportionate.

Evidence presented at trial showed that defendant and her husband rented a house from Charles A. Davis at 619 Madison Street in Reidsville, North Carolina. Davis lived near the Kemmerlins, at 625 Madison Street. At around 8:00 p.m. on 24 March 1999, defendant ran into Davis' trailer screaming that Wayne had been shot. Davis directed defendant to use his phone to call 911. Davis eventually took over the 911 call, and defendant returned to her home on foot. Davis completed the 911 call and drove to the Kemmerlin house.

Once inside the home, Davis observed Wayne Kemmerlin lying flat on his back on the floor. Davis checked for a pulse but could find none. Defendant called 911 a second time.

Sergeant Darryl M. Crowder of the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department was the first to respond to the scene at 8:13 p.m. After checking the residence to make sure no one else was present, Sergeant Crowder examined the body and found three to four gunshot wounds in the lower abdomen and one gunshot wound to the right forearm. Defendant told Sergeant Crowder that a black male had shot her husband. She described the shooter as five foot ten inches tall, with a close-cut haircut and large lips. Defendant said the shooter was wearing a blue puffy coat and blue jeans. Defendant told Sergeant Crowder that she did not know the man.

According to defendant, the black male had come to the door and asked to use the phone because his car broke down. Defendant let the man in and went to get her husband. Defendant returned to the laundry room where she had been washing clothes. She heard the black male ask her husband what he owed him for using the phone. She then heard her husband say "No" at least twice. At that point, she heard shots fired and ran to Davis' home for help.

Sergeant Crowder found a ski mask in the kitchen but noted no signs of a struggle. Sergeant Crowder learned that the victim's company truck was missing from the scene. This truck was recovered a few hours later, having been abandoned approximately three to four miles from the Kemmerlin residence.

EMS personnel arrived shortly after Sergeant Crowder. Defendant asked one of the EMS paramedics if her husband was "going to make it." Although the body was still warm, the victim was not breathing, had no pulse, and appeared lifeless. CPR was administered but was unsuccessful.

Betty Jo Hurt, a nurse on duty in the emergency room at Annie Penn Hospital, was part of the team attempting to revive the victim. Despite their efforts, the victim was pronounced dead at 8:53 p.m. According to Hurt, defendant went to view the body and kept repeating, "I shouldn't have let him in."

Associate Chief Medical Examiner Karen Chancellor performed an autopsy on the victim's body on 25 March 1999. Doctor Chancellor concluded that gunshot wounds to the chest and back were the most likely cause of death.

Also on 25 March 1999, the Sheriff's Department received a phone call from Cynthia Vaughn Loftis indicating that defendant should be a suspect in the murder investigation. Ms. Loftis was concerned that her son, Jerry Loftis, might be in danger because defendant had been looking for him and he owed defendant money.

The police interviewed Jerry Loftis and learned that he had first met defendant through his girlfriend, Dori Gwynn, in the summer of 1998. Loftis admitted to beginning a sexual relationship with defendant at that time. In August 1998, upon learning that Loftis sold drugs, defendant gave Loftis money to buy drugs, sell them at a profit, and share the profit with her. Defendant also gave Loftis one hundred methadone pills to sell for her. Loftis never gave defendant any of the profits from the sale of drugs.

Defendant told Loftis that her husband was verbally and physically abusive to her. On several occasions, defendant asked Loftis if he knew someone who would kill her husband, Wayne, for the money she would receive from his insurance policy. Defendant told Loftis she would get $200,000 if Wayne was killed. When Loftis told defendant that he did know someone, defendant gave him $400.00 or $500.00 and instructed Loftis that the murder should be made to look like a robbery. Loftis, however, used the money to pay his bills and "party."

Defendant also asked Loftis himself about killing her husband. Additionally, she gave Loftis an assault rifle to sell and use the money to hire someone to kill her husband. In October 1998, Loftis was sent to prison, where he remained until late December 1998. When defendant learned that Loftis was out of prison, she began looking for him by contacting his friends and family members.

Also on 25 March 1999, Special Agent David Hedgecock of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) interviewed Loftis' girlfriend, Dori Gwynn. Gwynn corroborated Loftis' earlier statements and told police that defendant had offered Gwynn and Loftis $5,000 if they would kill defendant's husband.

Following his interview with Gwynn, Agent Hedgecock interviewed defendant at the Rockingham County Sheriff's Department at 7:50 p.m. Hedgecock advised defendant that she was not under arrest and could terminate the interview at any time. Defendant told Hedgecock that she understood she was free to leave at any time.

Defendant began the interview by describing the events on the night her husband was killed, reiterating her earlier statement to police. The conversation then shifted to a discussion of defendant's marriage. Defendant told Agent Hedgecock that Wayne had hit her only three times during the marriage but had pushed her and verbally abused her as well. According to defendant, Wayne would get drunk and force her to have sex with him.

Agent Hedgecock asked defendant about her involvement with Jerry Loftis. Defendant acknowledged her sexual relationship with Loftis but denied that Loftis had anything to do with Wayne's death. Defendant then became visibly upset and began to cry. She told Hedgecock that the person who shot Wayne was a black male named "Antone" but that she did not know his last name.

Defendant admitted to approaching Loftis about getting Wayne killed. Loftis told her he knew someone who would kill Wayne for $1,500. Defendant gave Loftis various amounts of money on several occasions, ultimately totaling $1,500. She raised $300.00 more because Loftis said he needed money to buy a gun. Defendant had no knowledge that Loftis ever tried to find someone to kill Wayne. Upon learning that Loftis was out of jail, defendant began looking for Loftis to get her money back. She thought Antone might know where Loftis was. Accordingly, she met with Antone and told him that she had given Loftis money to have Wayne killed and that Loftis had never done anything about it. Antone told defendant that he would find someone to kill Wayne.

Sometime in March 1999, defendant, bruised from a beating Wayne had given her, went to Antone's residence. Upon seeing the bruises, Antone became upset and told defendant to give him money to buy a gun and he would "handle it." Defendant gave Antone $150.00 on 22 March 1999 to pay for a gun.

Defendant and Antone agreed that Antone would kill Wayne the following evening, 23 March 1999, while defendant attended a candle party. Antone did not kill Wayne as planned but told defendant on 24 March 1999 that he would kill Wayne that night.

At around 5:45 p.m. on 24 March 1999, defendant paged Antone and told him she would be leaving work in about fifteen minutes. Defendant left work as planned and picked up Antone. Defendant dropped Antone off near a pawnshop and went to a tanning salon. After her tanning appointment, defendant drove to the Texaco station on Harrison Street in Reidsville, where she and Antone had planned to meet. Defendant dropped Antone off at a business near her house at 7:10 p.m. before driving home.

After a brief conversation with her husband, defendant began doing laundry. A short time later, the doorbell rang, and defendant answered it to find Antone standing there. Defendant told Antone, "No, this ain't going to work." Antone, however, continued to follow the plan and asked to use the phone because his car had broken down. Defendant told investigators that the rest of the events were the same as she had initially described. The primary differences were: she admitted (1) that she knew the previously unidentified black male; (2) that she was involved in the events leading up to her husband's shooting; and (3) that after the shooting, she knelt beside Wayne's body and told him, "I'm sorry." Defendant, crying, told the investigators, "I can't believe I did it." Defendant told the investigators that she did not know that Antone was going to rob Wayne and that she had not spoken with...

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