State v. Lynch, 051920 NCCA, COA19-358

Docket Nº:COA19-358
Opinion Judge:DILLON, JUDGE
Attorney:Attorney General Joshua H. Stein by Assistant Attorney General Sherri H. Lawrence, for the State. Glover & Petersen, P.A., by James R. Glover, for Defendant-Appellant.
Judge Panel:Judges COLLINS and BROOK concur.
Case Date:May 19, 2020
Court:Court of Appeals of North Carolina




No. COA19-358

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 19, 2020

Heard in the Court of Appeals 18 March 2020.

Appeal by Defendant from judgment entered 19 March 2018 by Judge Charles Henry in Lenoir County Nos. 16CRS050202, 17CRS000096-97 Superior Court.

Attorney General Joshua H. Stein by Assistant Attorney General Sherri H. Lawrence, for the State.

Glover & Petersen, P.A., by James R. Glover, for Defendant-Appellant.


Defendant Justin Lynch appeals from a judgment entered against him for first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill inflicting serious injury. Defendant was sentenced to life without parole for the murder conviction and to shorter terms for the other convictions.

I. Background

This case arises out of the robbery of a bar on 22 January 2016, perpetrated by two masked individuals. The evidence at trial tended to show that Defendant was one of the masked individuals. During the robbery, Defendant shot and killed the owner of the bar, and he and his accomplice fled with the cash register. Officers tracked down Defendant and his accomplice and arrested them. Defendant was advised of his Miranda rights and signed a waiver, never asking to speak with a lawyer. Defendant was interrogated alone by two officers at the police station.

Defendant adamantly denied any involvement during much of the interrogation. However, towards the end of the recorded, three-hour interrogation, Defendant finally confessed to his involvement.

Prior to trial, Defendant moved to have his confession suppressed. His motion was denied.

At trial, the State introduced Defendant's confession and the testimonies of others involved in the robbery implicating Defendant. The jury convicted Defendant. Defendant appeals.

II. Analysis

A. Voluntariness of Defendant's Confession

On appeal, Defendant argues that it was error for the trial court to admit his confession. He contends that his confession was not voluntary "because it was produced by the hope for a sentence less tha[n] life imprisonment [in]duced by the statements and actions of the officers who interrogated him."

The transcript from the interrogation tends to show that Defendant was not predisposed to confess; he repeatedly denied any involvement; he was predisposed to believe that he would receive a life sentence whether he confessed or not; the interrogators told Defendant that they had overwhelming evidence of his guilt; they told him that they believed he was lying; they told Defendant that he had a better chance of a lesser sentence if he cooperated with them; and Defendant eventually cooperated, confessing to his involvement and naming his accomplice, believing that by cooperating, he had a better chance of a reduced sentence.

1. A confession induced by hope may be involuntary, depending on the totality of the circumstances.

"It has been the law of this State from its beginning that an extrajudicial confession of guilt by an accused is admissible against him only when it is voluntary." State v. Fox, 274 N.C. 277, 292, 163 S.E.2d 492, 502 (1968) (emphasis added) (citations omitted). In an opinion penned during the first decade of our Supreme Court's existence, our original three justices each expressed the view that a confession which was induced by some promise or hope is involuntary and, therefore, inadmissible.1 State v. Roberts, 12 N.C. 259, 260 (1827) (granting a new trial).

We stress, though, that a confession motivated by some hope of leniency, in and of itself, does not render a confession involuntary. Indeed, hope may be part of a defendant's calculus in voluntarily deciding to confess.

It is when this hope develops from something said by one in authority, such as by an interrogating officer, that our Supreme Court has held that a confession may be deemed involuntary. But even hope so derived is not per se involuntary. Rather, the court "looks at the totality of the circumstances." State v. Jackson, 308 N.C. 549, 581, 304 S.E.2d 134, 152 (1983). And where a "defendant's will [i]s not overborne [by the hope]," his confession can still be said to be "made freely and voluntarily with full knowledge of the consequences." State v. Richardson, 316 N.C. 594, 604, 342 S.E.2d 823, 831 (1986) (requiring the reviewing court to look at the totality of the circumstances to determine whether a confession induced, in part, by hope is voluntary).

In any event, it is the role of the trial judge, and the appellate judges on review, to consider the totality of the circumstances in determining whether a confession was so induced by hope so as to render it involuntary.

2. Where there are no disputes as to what occurred during the interrogation, we review de novo whether Defendant's confession was voluntary.

It is the role of the trial court to resolve disputes about what was said or done by the defendant or the investigating officers during an interrogation. See

Richardson, 316 N.C. at 600-01, 342 S.E.2d at 828 (1986). However, where there is no dispute or after the trial court has resolved such disputes, whether a defendant's confession was voluntary "is a question of law and is fully reviewable on appeal." State v. Barden, 356 N.C. 316, 339, 572 S.E.2d 108, 124 (2002) (internal quotation marks omitted) (citation omitted). That is, whether certain conduct and language by the interrogating officers "amounted to such threats or promises or influenced the defendant by hope and fear as to render [his] subsequent confession involuntary" is reviewed de novo on appeal, as a question of law. Richardson, at 601, 342 S.E.2d at 828; see State v. Rook, 304 N.C. 201, 216, 283 S.E.2d 732, 742 (1981) (holding that where a defendant is influenced by hope and fear the subsequent confession is involuntary); see also State v. Andrew, 61 N.C. 205, 206 (1867) ("What facts amount to such threats or promises as make confessions not voluntary and admissible in evidence is a question of law, and the decision of the judge in the court below can be reviewed by this court[.]").

3. Our Supreme Court has instructed that, though certain statements by interrogators are inappropriate, the determination of voluntariness must be based on the totality of the circumstances.

Confessions induced by hope or fear tend not to be reliably true, as there is some probability that the suspect decided to confess to something that he did not do simply because he believed it to be his best option at the time. Indeed, this was one of Justice Henderson's concerns in Roberts.

Roberts, 12 N.C. at 262.

There is, however, a greater concern, a constitutional concern: no matter how truthful a confession may appear to be on its face, a defendant has the constitutional right not to have incriminating statements, involuntarily made by him, used against him. See Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532, 542...

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