State v. Strickland

Decision Date24 July 1997
Docket NumberNo. 483A95,483A95
Citation346 N.C. 443,488 S.E.2d 194
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Darrell Eugene STRICKLAND.

Michael F. Easley, Attorney General by Ellen B. Scouten, Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State.

Sam J. Ervin, IV, Morganton, for defendant-appellant.

MITCHELL, Chief Justice.

Defendant Darrell Eugene Strickland was tried capitally upon an indictment charging him with the first-degree murder of Henry Brown. The jury returned a verdict of guilty of first-degree murder on the basis of premeditation and deliberation. Following a separate capital sentencing proceeding, the jury recommended a sentence of death, and the trial court sentenced defendant accordingly.

The State's evidence tended to show inter alia that on 1 January 1995, the victim, Henry Brown, went with his wife, Gail Brown, and her six-year-old child to the home of defendant, who lived with Sherri Jenkins and their two-year-old son in Marshville, North Carolina. Mrs. Brown had formerly worked with both Ms. Jenkins and defendant at Cuddy Foods in Marshville and had been "good friends" with Ms. Jenkins for about six years. Ms. Jenkins had been dating defendant for thirteen years, had mothered his two-year-old son, and had been cohabiting with defendant for about six months at the time of the murder.

The Browns arrived at the residence of defendant and Ms. Jenkins at approximately 8:00 p.m. Mr. Brown had been drinking but was not drunk. Mr. Brown and defendant went into the kitchen, while Mrs. Brown and Ms. Jenkins stayed in the living room. The children were sent into the bedroom to play, and the adults began drinking alcoholic beverages. Ms. Jenkins testified at trial that they shared a marijuana joint and that all four adults drank from a half-gallon bottle of gin. The four adults continued drinking and talking for several hours. During this time, a shotgun owned by defendant was passed around. Everyone was talking about shooting it and joking about shooting each other, but there were no serious threats. There were two shells in the gun and no other shells in the house. Ms. Jenkins took the gun outside and fired it once.

At approximately 1:30 a.m., Mrs. Brown and Ms. Jenkins were in the kitchen preparing food for everyone to eat. The men were in the living room. Mrs. Brown testified that, while in the kitchen, she looked into the living room, where she saw her husband sitting on an ottoman with his head in his hands. Defendant was standing to the back and side of Mr. Brown with the gun in his hand pointed at Mr. Brown. Mrs. Brown saw defendant's lips move but could not hear what he said. She then heard the gun being fired, smelled burning flesh, and saw her husband fall over.

Ms. Jenkins testified that she witnessed the victim sitting on the ottoman with defendant standing behind him. The victim was mumbling something that she could not hear. She stepped outside to feed the cats, during which time she heard the gun go off. She came back inside and saw the victim fall over. According to Ms. Jenkins, the victim's behavior that evening was obnoxious and loud. He was cursing at intervals and drinking alcohol throughout the night.

Immediately following the shooting, defendant left in his truck. He drove to the house of his ex-wife, Ms. Betty Sanders, in Marshville. Defendant asked Ms. Sanders to drive him in his truck to his uncle's house in Rockingham. At approximately 2:45 a.m., Ms. Sanders and defendant were stopped in Rockingham by Officer Poston and Officer Grant of the Rockingham Police Department, which had been notified to be on the lookout for defendant. Officer Grant transported defendant to the Rockingham Police Department.

At the Police Department, after being advised of his constitutional rights, defendant spoke to Special Agent Tony Underwood of the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) and Detective Bill Tucker of the Union County Sheriff's Department. Defendant told them that he shot Henry Brown because "he pissed me off" and because "he called me a punk Indian son-of-a-bitch." Defendant said that no one else had anything to do with the shooting. He said that he "meant to kill" the victim. He denied that alcohol had caused him to commit the murder. Defendant said that he had not planned to kill the victim. He did however say that he had to cock the gun in order to get it to shoot.

Detective Easley of the Union County Sheriff's Department examined the crime scene during the early morning hours of 2 January 1995. Detective Easley found the body of Henry Brown lying on the living room floor on its left side. Blood was coming from the victim's nose and mouth and a hole in the back shoulder area. There was no weapon on or around the victim's body. In the gun cabinet, Detective Easley found one Ithaca twelve-gauge pump shotgun which contained one spent Winchester "double aught" buckshot casing in the chamber. He also found one spent "double aught" buckshot shell outside on the ground about eleven inches from the front doorstep.

Michael Gavin of the forensic firearms and tool marks unit of the SBI laboratory tested the shotgun and found that the gun functioned properly. Gerald Long, owner of Long's Sporting Goods and Pawn Shop, testified that he had experience in selling, firing, and repairing Ithaca twelve-gauge pump shotguns. He testified that, in his opinion, the Ithaca shotgun, in the hands of someone not experienced with it, would go off faster than any other shotgun on the market and is susceptible to accident.

By his first assignment of error, defendant contends that the trial court's refusal to permit him to question prospective jurors about their submission of a note to the trial court was error. In the note submitted at the conclusion of the first day of jury selection, the prospective jurors questioned whether defendant kept notes including jurors' names and addresses taken during jury selection. Defendant argues that the trial court's ruling unduly restricted the scope of his questioning and prohibited him from obtaining adequate information about any biases or preconceived fears held by prospective jurors.

"The trial court has the duty to supervise the examination of prospective jurors. Regulation of the manner and extent of questioning of prospective jurors rests largely in the trial court's discretion." State v. Jaynes, 342 N.C. 249, 265, 464 S.E.2d 448, 458 (1995), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 116 S.Ct. 2563, 135 L.Ed.2d 1080 (1996). "A trial court may be reversed for an abuse of discretion only upon a showing that its ruling was so arbitrary that it could not have been the result of a reasoned decision." State v. Green, 336 N.C. 142, 164, 443 S.E.2d 14, 27 (1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 1046, 115 S.Ct. 642, 130 L.Ed.2d 547 (1994). We have examined the jury-selection transcript and find that the trial court permitted defense counsel to question prospective jurors in detail about any bias they may have had against defendant. The trial court appropriately exercised its discretion in limiting defense counsel's questions concerning the circumstances that gave rise to the jurors' note. It was proper for the trial court to protect the jurors' ability to ask questions concerning the jury-selection process by protecting them from multiple, and perhaps intimidating, inquiries. Accordingly, this assignment of error is overruled.

By another assignment of error, defendant contends that defense counsel repeatedly made concessions of guilt during the jury-selection process without his permission in violation of this Court's decision in State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175, 337 S.E.2d 504 (1985), cert. denied, 476 U.S. 1123, 106 S.Ct. 1992, 90 L.Ed.2d 672 (1986). In particular, defendant argues that defense counsel's repeated statements during jury selection that defendant was holding the gun that killed the victim at the time the victim was shot amounted to a concession of guilt to which defendant had not agreed.

In Harbison, defense counsel in a first-degree murder case asked the jury to convict the defendant of involuntary manslaughter instead of first- or second-degree murder, without first receiving permission from the defendant to make such argument. This Court wrote that "[w]hen counsel admits his client's guilt without first obtaining the client's consent, the client's rights to a fair trial and to put the State to the burden of proof are completely swept away." Id. at 180, 337 S.E.2d at 507. We concluded that counsel's admission of defendant's guilt without his permission was a denial of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel. Id.

In the present case, the prosecutor expressed concern at trial that defense counsel's statements could violate the rule in Harbison if defendant had not agreed to them. When the prosecutor attempted to make a record showing that defendant had consented to the statements, defense counsel responded

[t]hat [the victim] was shot with a shotgun and at the time it was in my client's hands. That, your honor, is not an admission of guilt and we don't intend for it to be an admission of guilt. To the extent that it can be interpreted as admission of guilt, and it shouldn't be, we do not intend that that in any way be interpreted as an admission of guilt. We intend it to be an accurate statement of the circumstances that occurred at the time of the incident in question.

We are persuaded that the statements made by defense counsel did not amount to an admission of defendant's guilt. The uncontroverted evidence in this case was that defendant had been holding the gun when Mr. Brown was shot. Defense counsel's statements were not the equivalent of asking the jury to find defendant guilty of any charge, and therefore, Harbison does not control. See, e.g., State v. Harvell, 334 N.C. 356, 361, 432 S.E.2d 125, 128 (1993); State v. Greene, 332 N.C. 565, 572, 422 S.E.2d 730, 733-34 (1992). Accordingly, we overrule...

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