State v. Thomas

Decision Date14 August 1991
Docket NumberNo. 455A87,455A87
Citation329 N.C. 423,407 S.E.2d 141
PartiesSTATE of North Carolina v. James Edward THOMAS.
CourtNorth Carolina Supreme Court

Lacy H. Thornburg, Atty. Gen. by J. Michael Carpenter, Sp. Deputy Atty. Gen., Raleigh, for the State.

Susan K. Nichols and Thomas F. Moffitt, Raleigh, for defendant-appellant.

EXUM, Chief Justice.

Defendant raises the following issues in his assignments of error in the guilt phase of his trial: (1) whether the prosecutor peremptorily challenged potential jurors solely on the basis of race; (2) whether the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's convictions for felony sex offense and first-degree felony murder; (3) whether the trial court committed reversible error in admitting nontestimonial evidence taken without a search warrant; (4) whether certain concessions by defense counsel of defendant's guilt before the trial jury deprived defendant of his right to counsel; and (5) whether the trial court committed reversible error in refusing to instruct jurors about sexual assault as an afterthought to murder. We find no error in the guilt phase of defendant's trial. The decision in McKoy v. North Carolina, 494 U.S. 433, 110 S.Ct. 1227, 108 L.Ed.2d 369, on remand, 327 N.C. 31, 394 S.E.2d 426 (1990), requires that we remand for a new sentencing hearing.


The State's evidence at trial tended to show the following:

In the early afternoon of 14 June 1986, the body of Teresa Ann West was discovered at the Sir Walter Tourist Home in Raleigh. Her body was scratched and bruised, and injuries appearing to be human bite marks were found on her breasts. A telephone receiver was found inserted in her vagina. A forensic specialist performed an autopsy and estimated the victim, manager of the Tourist Home, died sometime around midnight the night before. The expert testified that the victim had been strangled both manually and with pantyhose used as a garrote and that the telephone receiver probably was inserted in the victim's vagina after she was dead.

Defendant had lived at the Tourist Home for approximately five months before moving to his girlfriend's apartment in Cary, North Carolina in June 1986. On the night of 13 June 1986 a roommate, Eddie Corley, let defendant use his car, a 1985 blue Monte Carlo. Defendant said he was going out to buy beer. At 10:55 that night a Raleigh police officer cited defendant for speeding on a road leading into Raleigh from Cary. One resident of the Tourist Home recalled seeing an unfamiliar blue car in the boardinghouse's driveway at approximately 11:30 p.m.

Defendant's girlfriend, Sandy Jordan, testified that defendant returned to their Cary apartment at 6 a.m. on 14 June. Defendant and Jordan were called to the police station at 8 p.m., and defendant requested that Jordan call his brother-in-law and ask him to hide the shirt defendant had worn the night before. Defendant himself later telephoned his stepbrother and told him to hide the shirt because it had heroin on it. When the stepbrother hid the shirt he noticed a bloodstain on the collar. Defendant and Jordan returned to their apartment with detectives at about 11 p.m. The police asked defendant for the clothing he wore on 13 June, and defendant gave detectives the wrong shirt and pants. When detectives realized defendant had given them the wrong clothes, they obtained a search warrant for the apartment, returned there, and found the correct clothing.

The State presented several forensic experts who testified about physical evidence obtained from the crime scene and from defendant's clothing tending to place defendant in the victim's apartment on the night of her murder. Defendant's palm print was found inside the bathtub, which had been scrubbed clean the morning before West's death. Defendant's left little finger print was found on the back of the telephone base, and his left palmprint was found on the inside of the victim's bedroom door. Fibers found under the victim's fingernails, on her body, and on the bedsheets matched fibers from the shirt defendant wore the night the victim was killed. Fibers from the victim's bathmat were found on defendant's shirt and the victim's nightshirt. Feathers consistent with the victim's pillow were found on her torso and on defendant's shirt. Carpet fibers from the car defendant drove on 13 and 14 June were found on the victim's nightshirt.

The State also compared evidence from the crime scene with physiological evidence obtained from defendant's person. Police obtained samples of defendant's blood, hair, fingernails, teeth, and lips in a procedure following a nontestimonial identification order served on defendant the day after his arrest. A serologist testified that blood on a piece of tissue found in the victim's apartment was consistent with the defendant's blood. An expert in forensic hair analysis testified that hair consistent with defendant's was found in the victim's pubic hair and on a sheet underneath the body. An expert in forensic odontology who examined injuries on the victim's breasts and took dental impressions from the defendant offered his opinion that the injuries were bite marks left by defendant's teeth.

Defendant testified that he and the victim became friends after he moved into the Tourist Home in early 1986. He then moved to Cary to live with Jordan. On the night of Friday, 13 June 1987, defendant borrowed Corley's blue Monte Carlo and drove to the boardinghouse to visit West. She let him in her apartment and said she had obtained heroin for him. After visiting Raleigh taverns in an unsuccessful attempt to find cocaine to use with the heroin, defendant returned to West's room. West gave defendant a syringe filled with heroin and he injected it into his arm. He then became nauseous and crawled into the bathroom and vomited. He dabbed the injection wound on his arm with some tissue. When defendant returned to West's bedroom, she asked him to have sex with her. He declined, saying he loved his girlfriend and was physically incapable of sex because of the heroin. West gave him some pills she said would keep him conscious, and he dissolved them and injected them. West then threatened to telephone a friend who was a law enforcement officer and report that defendant was wanted by police in California. West picked up the telephone receiver and pointed it at defendant. He stood up from the floor and asked if she was serious about having him arrested. She said she was. Defendant's next recollection was waking up at 4:45 a.m. or 5:44 a.m. and finding West dead. He placed a pillow over her face, collected his belongings, and ran from her room. He drove back to Cary, went to bed and got up to go to work later that morning.

Defendant also presented expert testimony tending to contradict the State's evidence matching defendant's dental impressions to the injuries found on the victim's breasts.

The jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder both by premeditation and deliberation and under the felony murder rule, and guilty of first-degree sexual offense. The jury found defendant not guilty of common-law robbery and not guilty of larceny.

At the sentencing proceeding following defendant's conviction for first-degree murder, the State introduced evidence that defendant had pleaded guilty and served a prison term in California for armed robbery. Defendant called friends, family members, and a guard from a prison where he was previously incarcerated to testify about his good character. Defendant then testified that he had abused drugs since his stepfather introduced him to marijuana at age twelve. He said he committed the armed robbery in California to pay off cocaine debts. He expressed remorse for the victim's death but did not admit killing her. On cross-examination defendant admitted he was angry with the victim when she threatened to call police about outstanding California arrest warrants.

The trial court submitted four aggravating circumstances for the jury's consideration: (1) defendant had been previously convicted of a felony involving the use or threat of violence to another person; (2) the murder was committed while defendant was engaged in a sexual offense; (3) the murder was committed to disrupt or hinder the enforcement of laws; and (4) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel. The jury found the first three to be aggravating circumstances.

The trial court submitted nine mitigating circumstances for the jury's consideration. The jury unanimously found three of these circumstances but did not find six others, including that defendant's capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law was impaired.

The jury unanimously found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances and recommended the death sentence.


Defendant contends he is entitled to a new trial because the prosecutor violated his state and federal constitutional rights by peremptorily challenging prospective jurors solely on the basis of race. Article I, section 26 of the Constitution of North Carolina prohibits racially based peremptory challenges. State v. Crandell, 322 N.C. 487, 501, 369 S.E.2d 579, 587 (1988). The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution also prohibits such discrimination. Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 1712, 90 L.Ed.2d 69 (1986). Defendant further contends the prosecutor's peremptory challenges against prospective black jurors violated his rights under the Sixth and Eighth Amendments of the United States Constitution and Article I, section 24 of the Constitution of North Carolina. 1

At the start of jury selection defense counsel renewed a pretrial motion to prohibit the prosecution from peremptorily challenging any black person. The trial court deferred ruling on the motion until the prosecutor peremptorily challenged a black...

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