State v. Syriani

Citation428 S.E.2d 118,333 N.C. 350
Decision Date12 March 1993
Docket NumberNo. 300A91,300A91
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. Elias Hanna SYRIANI.

Appeal of right by defendant pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-27(a) from a judgment imposing a sentence of death entered by Burroughs, J., at the 3 June 1991 Criminal Session of Superior Court, Mecklenburg County, upon a jury verdict finding defendant guilty of first-degree murder. Execution stayed 9 July 1991 pending defendant's appeal. Heard in the Supreme Court 10 September 1992.

Lacy H. Thornburg, Atty. Gen. by Ralf F. Haskell, Sp. Deputy Atty. Gen., Raleigh, for the State.

Richard B. Glazier, Fayetteville, for defendant-appellant.

WHICHARD, Justice.

Defendant was tried on an indictment charging him with the first-degree murder of his wife, Teresa Yousef Syriani. The jury returned a verdict finding defendant guilty upon the theory of premeditation and deliberation. Following a sentencing proceeding pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 15A-2000, the jury recommended that defendant be sentenced to death. For the reasons discussed herein, we conclude that the jury selection, guilt, and sentencing phases of defendant's trial were free from prejudicial error, and that the sentence of death is not disproportionate.

The State's evidence tended to show the following: Defendant and his wife were living apart, defendant in a motel, and his wife with their children in their home. On 28 July 1990, around 11:20 p.m., defendant drove to their home, but his wife had not returned from work. As she drove her automobile onto a nearby street, defendant blocked her way with his van. Defendant got out of his van, gestured, and chased after her car as she put it in reverse. As his wife sat in her car, defendant began stabbing her with a screwdriver through the open door or window, while their ten-year-old son John sat in the seat beside her. John was unable to stop his father; he got out of the car and ran home to get his older sister. At least two neighbors watched from their homes as defendant stabbed his wife and then walked away. Teresa Syriani Boyd Wilson testified that he lived in the Syrianis' neighborhood. He knew defendant's son but only knew defendant by sight. On 28 July 1990, around 11:20 p.m., Wilson was at home when he heard children hollering. He looked out his window and saw a van parked across the street with the interior lights on and the door open. He looked again and watched defendant come toward the van, get into the driver's seat, and fumble with something. Then he saw defendant go back down the street and cross the street to a car in the driveway of the house next to Wilson's. Defendant leaned over inside the car. Wilson saw the car shaking. Then Wilson went outside, whereupon he saw defendant back in the van. He also saw two young boys, John Syriani and John's friend. Wilson heard a young woman hollering "somebody help my mother" and went to the car. A woman in the car was covered in blood. A neighbor wiped her face. She looked to him "like somebody [who] had been shot in the face with a load of buckshot."

died twenty-eight days later due to a lethal wound to her brain.

Thomas O'Connor testified that he lived near the Syrianis but did not know them. On 28 July 1990, around 11:20 p.m., he received a phone call from a neighbor prompting him to look out his window. O'Connor saw a man standing at a car halfway in a driveway holding what appeared to be a screwdriver and "stabbing into the car." O'Connor ran outside, yelling, and made eye contact with the man. The man kept stabbing into the car. O'Connor ran back inside to phone the police, then ran outside. He saw the van pulling away. The van stopped and the man, screwdriver in hand, got out and walked toward the car. The man saw O'Connor, turned back to the van, and drove away.

John Syriani, defendant's eleven-year-old son, testified that the family had lived in the house in Charlotte since 1986 except for a week in the summer of 1988 when the police took him, his sisters, and his mother to a Battered Women's Shelter. Then they stayed with his mother's sister in New Jersey for about a month. When defendant came to take them back, they returned to Charlotte. In July 1990 he, his three sisters, and his mother lived in a motel. They moved back to their home when defendant moved out.

On 28 July 1990, John went with his mother to the Crown gas station. His father came by and asked him to go out with him. John rode home with his mother and saw his father's van stopped ahead as they approached their home. As his mother approached the turn onto the main street before their house, defendant moved the van to block her way. Then defendant got out of the van, gestured, and chased the mother's car. She put the car in reverse. Defendant opened the door and started stabbing John's mother, who started screaming. John tried to push his father's hands off her, but he could not stop his father. John ran home to get his older sister and told her, "Dad is killing Mom." John then ran to his friend's house. John and his friend ran back to his mother's car, now in a neighbor's driveway. Defendant was kneeling at the open door, stabbing into the car. Defendant then walked back to the van and yelled, "Go home bastard," in Arabic, to John. Frightened, John ran back down the street. Neighbors took John into their home.

On cross-examination, John testified that his father worked long hours. His father always carried a screwdriver as part of his work tools. His mother had never worked, had dressed according to Arabic tradition, and had worn no makeup or lipstick before they moved to Charlotte. His parents had argued, but mostly over the children. In 1988 or 1989, John's mother decided she did not like staying at home and wanted to get a job. At her second job at a gas station, she worked some nights. When his mother worked nights, his older sister babysat. Starting in 1990, his parents argued more frequently. Defendant did not like the fact that John's mother was working; he wanted her to stay home with the children. In July 1990, defendant moved into a motel.

When he first spotted the van the night of 28 July 1990, John thought the motor On redirect examination, John recalled seeing his father slap his mother when he was five and hit his mother in "the ear" on Easter Sunday, 1989. John also recalled seeing his mother "screaming and running out of the house" while his father stood at the door in the summer of 1988. Finally, John testified that his mother was a good mother. She and his father argued about three times a week, and his father called her names, for example, "whore."

was turned off because the headlights were turned off. Defendant, however, turned on the headlights and turned his van to the right across the street. Defendant had stabbed John's mother once before the car came to a complete stop in a driveway.

Rose Syriani, defendant's eldest daughter, testified about the events leading up to the stay at the Battered Women's Shelter in the summer of 1988. Rose and her mother were at home when defendant came in and threw the groceries at them. Defendant started to scream at his wife, jumping up and down and breaking a table with his foot. Then defendant went into the garage and returned with a large wooden bat. He ran upstairs after her mother, who had left the house. The police showed up shortly thereafter and took the mother and children to the shelter. Contrary to John's testimony, Rose testified that her parents fought constantly in Illinois. In the summer of 1990, her mother was sleeping in the younger daughter's bedroom. In July, they moved to a motel.

On 28 July 1990, John came to the front door banging and screaming, "Dad is trying to kill Mom." Rose called the police, saw her brother coming back, and ran to her mother. She saw her father enter his van, look at her, and drive away. When she reached her mother, her mother said, "Ma Ma, shut up." "Ma Ma" is Arabic for "honey."

On cross-examination, Rose maintained that her parents were always arguing and defendant would jump and yell at her mother, although there were times when her parents did not argue. Sometimes her father "would go downstairs around three o'clock in the morning ... and just start breaking things downstairs." During arguments between January and July 1990, her mother would say she would quit her job if defendant would buy food the children liked to eat. Rose also testified about the time defendant started yelling at her in Arabic and grabbed her around her throat, saying he was going to kill her. Rose remained angry with her father in 1988, 1989, and 1990 because he constantly disciplined the children--for example, they were not allowed to play outside after 5:00 p.m.--and he argued with her mother.

On redirect, Rose testified that her mother told her to "shut up" because she was screaming, holding her mother's hand, trying to sit her mother up, and shaking her to see if she were still alive. Once her mother spoke, she stopped shaking her and went for help.

Rose then testified about a number of specific instances of verbal and physical abuse by her father. When defendant thought she had scratched his new van, he grabbed her and started to kick her. Crying, she ran out of the house. She testified: "[H]e got me on the floor and kicked me ... into the ground. People were walking by and my mom pulled his leg off me." Defendant told her mother he would kill her if she ever left him, that she would not live without him, and that he would "f--- up our world."

On recross-examination, Rose testified that the children were always scared of their father even though he provided well for them.

Jeane Allen, a registered nurse at the Carolinas Medical Center, testified that she saw Mrs. Syriani at 12:24 a.m. on 29 July 1990. The victim was covered in blood and suffered from lacerations to her arm, right side, and face. As she was being moved, she grasped her...

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