State v. Laws

Decision Date26 July 1989
Docket NumberNo. 653A85,653A85
Citation381 S.E.2d 609,325 N.C. 81
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Wayne Alan LAWS.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Lacy H. Thornburg, Atty. Gen. by Doris J. Holton, Asst. Atty. Gen., Raleigh, for the State.

Malcolm Ray Hunter, Jr., Appellate Defender by Louis D. Bilionis, Asst. Professor of Law, University of North Carolina School of Law, Chapel Hill, for the defendant.

MITCHELL, Justice.

The defendant was tried on proper indictments at the 12 August 1985 Special Criminal Session of Superior Court, Davidson County, and was convicted of two counts of murder in the first degree. The jury recommended and the trial court entered a sentence of death for each murder. On appeal the defendant brings forward numerous assignments of error which we address seriatim. We conclude that the defendant's trial and sentencing were free of prejudicial error.

The State's evidence tended to show that the bodies of Ronnie Waddell, 35, and James Kepley, 57, were found on a rural dirt road in Davidson County on the morning of 19 March 1984. Each had been bludgeoned to death with a hammer which had left telltale wounds about the head and torso. Each had suffered severe lacerations about the head and multiple skull fractures, including large shattered areas of the skull and round "punched out" holes in the skull about an inch in diameter. Pools of blood and pieces of flesh, hair, skull and brain matter were scattered about the bodies. One of the victims had six broken ribs. Autopsies revealed that both victims had died of extensive brain injuries inflicted with a blunt instrument and that both had been heavily intoxicated at the time.

The day after the discovery of the bodies, authorities took Texford Watts into custody and seized a Ford Mustang belonging to Watts and his sister. The defendant Wayne Alan Laws also was taken into custody at about that time. Tire tracks found on the dirt road at the scene of the murders appeared to have been made by tires similar to those on the Mustang. Blood and hair were collected from several areas of the interior and exterior of the vehicle. After taking Watts into custody, authorities also removed several pieces of clothing from a dumpster at the apartment complex where Watts and the defendant lived. Bloodstains, hair, flesh and brain matter were found on the clothing, which included jeans and a shirt belonging to Watts and jeans, a t-shirt, shoes and socks belonging to the defendant Laws.

The victims had relatively rare blood types. Watts' shirt was found to be stained with blood of types consistent with those of both victims. The jeans apparently belonging to Watts were stained with blood consistent with victim Waddell's blood type. The jeans apparently worn by the defendant were stained with blood of types consistent with those of both victims. The t-shirt, shoes and socks identified as the defendant's were stained with blood consistent with the victim Kepley's blood type. Blood found on the Mustang also was consistent with Kepley's blood type.

Hair consistent with that of Waddell was found on Watts' clothing. Hair consistent with that of Kepley was found on the defendant's clothing. Microscopic examination revealed that many of these hairs had been struck repeatedly with a blunt instrument and had been forced from the scalp by blows with a blunt instrument. Fibers collected from the Mustang were consistent with those found on the clothing of the two victims, the defendant and Watts.

At trial, Watts was a witness for the State. Watts testified that he and the defendant lived in the same apartment complex but were not very close friends. They had known each other only a few weeks prior to the murders. Watts testified that on the afternoon of 18 March 1984, he and the defendant drove to Lexington in the Mustang, purchased beer and rode up and down Main Street. After eating dinner in a Lexington restaurant, they headed back to Main Street and were stopped by a police officer who inquired if Watts, who was driving, was drinking. The officer let them go and they went to South Main Street and stopped at a convenience store.

Across the street from the convenience store, the two victims, Waddell and Kepley, were sitting on the curb in front of a restaurant. Watts knew Waddell and recognized Kepley. Watts and the defendant briefly talked with Waddell and Kepley. Waddell tried to sell Watts a tire he had with him and asked Watts for a beer. Watts and the defendant drove away but later saw the victims a little closer to town, still with the tire. Watts and the defendant stopped to talk with the victims, and Waddell asked them to take him somewhere he could get rid of the tire. Waddell and Kepley sat in the back seat of the Mustang, and Waddell began giving Watts directions. It was then dark.

After awhile, they came to a dirt road where there were no houses. Watts stopped the car on the dirt road to get out and relieve himself. Watts testified that after he returned to the car, the defendant Laws got out and asked one of the victims if he also needed to relieve himself. The defendant and both victims left the car, and Watts then heard a noise behind the car which sounded like "licks being passed." When he got out to investigate, Watts saw Kepley lying at the rear of the car, apparently unconscious, and the defendant beating Waddell with his fists a few feet away.

Watts testified that he told the defendant to leave Waddell alone, but the defendant pushed Watts out of the way, got the car keys from the ignition switch, took a claw hammer out of the trunk and began beating Waddell with the hammer. Watts testified that after Waddell fell to the ground, the defendant continued beating him on the head with the hammer. When Watts tried to stop him, the defendant threatened to kill Watts and struck him on the hand with the hammer. After beating Waddell, the defendant started beating Kepley, who was still motionless on the ground, with the hammer. Watts testified that he ran up the road and hid until he heard no more noises. He said he then returned to the Mustang and drove home.

Conflicting statements which Watts had made to police were introduced at trial. He first told police that, after the attack on the victims, he did not see the defendant again until the next day. He later said that while driving home, he saw the defendant on the side of the road and gave him a ride home.

Watts testified at trial that he had given his bloody clothes, later found in the dumpster, to the defendant at the defendant's request. He said that he had started to telephone police about the killings on the night they occurred but had hung up the telephone before the operator connected him with police. He also testified that when he saw the defendant the next day, the defendant threatened to kill him if he told anyone about the killings.

A statement which the defendant Laws had given to police after his arrest was introduced at trial. He more or less confirmed the events described by Watts, up to the time at which they had stopped to talk to Waddell and Kepley in Lexington. The defendant said he remembered stopping and talking with two people whom he did not know, but he could not remember anything after that because he had been drinking.

During the separate sentencing proceeding required by N.C.G.S. § 15A-2000, the trial court submitted and the jury found two aggravating circumstances as to each murder: that the murder was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel, and that the murder was part of a course of conduct which included commission of other crimes of violence against other persons. Five mitigating circumstances were submitted to the jury: that the defendant had not been convicted previously of a felony involving violence to persons, that the defendant had been a good and responsible employee, that the defendant's capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law was impaired, that the defendant helped to support his family, and any other mitigating circumstances which the jury might find from the evidence. The jury found the four specific circumstances submitted but not "any other" circumstances.

Additional evidence and other matters relevant to the defendant's specific assignments of error are discussed at other points in this opinion.

By his first assignments of error, the defendant contends that his state and federal constitutional rights to be present at all stages of his trial were violated on two occasions when the trial court talked privately with jurors. The first such incident occurred during jury selection when the trial judge, at the end of the day, told some jurors to go home and then told others that he would be coming down to talk to them privately about their jury service. The defendant's contention concerning this incident is without merit, as the transcript shows that the trial judge sent all those who still were prospective jurors home and indicated that he was going to talk only to those whom he had dismissed from jury service. These "jurors" had no role in the defendant's trial.

The second incident occurred at the opening of court on the fifth day of trial. The opening was delayed that morning as the trial court dealt with several matters. When the jurors returned to the courtroom, the judge told the jury:

We're very pleased to have the jury back again. I apologize to you for the delays. There were several matters that required the Court's attention this morning. It took much longer than we anticipated. I think when I was back earlier that each of you told me you were having no problems this morning.

The defendant, citing State v. Payne, 320 N.C. 138, 357 S.E.2d 612 (1987), argues that this revealed an ex parte "communication" between the judge and jury which violated his state and federal constitutional rights to be present during the proceedings against him. The defendant's reliance on Payne is misplaced. In ...

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