State v. Pasteur. (Lawyers Weekly No. 10-07-0688, 18 pp.) (John C. Martin, Ch.J.) Appealed from Franklin County Superior Court. (Henry W. Hight Jr., J.) N.C. App.
Holding: Even though the state proved defendant had a motive for killing his estranged wife, and even though the victim’s blood was found on one of defendant’s shoes, defendant and the victim had lived together until a few months before her murder, and the state failed to show that the victim’s blood could only have gotten on defendant’s shoe at the time of her murder.
We reverse defendant’s conviction of first-degree murder.
The state relied entirely on circumstantial evidence to establish that defendant was the perpetrator of his estranged wife’s murder. Viewing this evidence in the light most favorable to the state, we believe there was arguably sufficient evidence of defendant’s motive to murder his wife: he had displayed hostility towards her, had a history of abusing her, and she was extremely afraid of him to the point of obtaining a domestic violence protective order against him several months prior to her death.
Even though the state may have shown a motive for the killing, we are constrained to conclude, after a thorough and careful review of the evidence, that while the evidence of defendant’s opportunity and ability to commit the murder may raise a strong suspicion that he is guilty, it falls well short of that required to be substantial evidence that he was the one who committed the murder. Thus, we must hold that the denial of his motion to dismiss was error.
The state’s evidence fails to connect defendant to the murder. Neither the box cutter nor knives found at defendant’s house were shown to be involved in the attack on his wife; in fact, no murder weapon was ever presented to the jury.
Moreover, the state offered no evidence to place defendant at the scene of the murder; while defendant, in the past, had access to his wife’s home and car, he was judicially ordered to stay away from her residence and to surrender the keys to her car, and there was no indication in the record that he had failed to comply with the order.
Additionally, there was no evidence that defendant was seen around his wife’s home or in her car any time between Oct. 31, 2006, when the victim’s daughter last spoke to her, and Dec. 7, 2006, when the victim’s body was found. Defendant’s fingerprints were likewise not found in either the victim’s home or in her car.
Furthermore, we do not find the DNA evidence sufficiently connects defendant to his wife’s murder.
When the state relies on DNA evidence to show a defendant’s presence at a crime scene, it must also provide substantial evidence of circumstances from which the jury could conclude that the DNA evidence could only have been left at the time the crime was committed. In the present case, the state presented evidence that a trail of footprints bearing the victim’s blood was discovered at her residence, giving rise to the inference that she was killed there. The state also presented evidence that the victim’s blood was found on the bottom of one of defendant’s shoes.
However, the state offered no evidence that defendant was anywhere near the victim’s home at the time she was killed, that the footprints found in the home were those of defendant, or other circumstances from which a jury could conclude that the victim’s blood, and hence her DNA, could only have gotten on defendant’s shoe at the time of the murder.
The evidence did show, however, that defendant and his wife had lived together for approximately 11 years, only separating six months prior to her death. The SBI serologist testified that the blood sample from defendant’s shoe was degraded, possibly due to the length of time it had been on the shoe, giving rise to the possibility that the blood could have transferred to his shoe during the time they were living together.
Though the DNA evidence from defendant’s shoe raises a suspicion that defendant killed his wife, this suspicion alone is insufficient to be deemed substantial evidence that defendant was the perpetrator, especially considering the fact that the state’s evidence indicated that the blood could have transferred to defendant’s shoe prior to the murder and there was no other evidence of circumstances from which the jury could find that the DNA could have been acquired only at the time the crime was committed.
The additional evidence that defendant was seen walking down U.S. Highway 1 in Franklin County sometime around the time of his wife’s disappearance, and that her body was found sometime later at an abandoned house in the vicinity of the same highway, only adds to the suspicion surrounding defendant’s guilt; it does not supply substantial evidence that he was the perpetrator. Likewise, the evidence surrounding the use of the victim’s ATM card does not definitively connect defendant to the crime; there was no evidence that the card was taken at the time of her murder or that defendant was the person who used the card.
Defendant was not found in possession of any of his wife’s property after her death. Though there was evidence that a man used the victim’s ATM card the first week of November 2006, there was no evidence identifying defendant as the person who used the card, that this transaction occurred after her death, or that the card was taken at the time of her murder. Likewise, there was no evidence presented that defendant had been in his wife’s car anytime after she went missing.
The evidence did not place defendant at the scene of the murder; there was no evidence that defendant had been seen around his wife’s house or in her car anytime around the time of her murder, and the DNA evidence provided no evidence of his presence there at the time of the crime.