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Home / Courts / Criminal Practice – Second-Degree Murder – High-Speed Chase – Evidence – Shoplifting Spree – Malice — Driving Without a License – Post-Accident Conduct – Jury Instructions

Criminal Practice – Second-Degree Murder – High-Speed Chase – Evidence – Shoplifting Spree – Malice — Driving Without a License – Post-Accident Conduct – Jury Instructions

State v. Rollins (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-07-0531, 25 pp.) (Martha A. Geer, J.) Appealed from Mecklenburg County Superior Court. (Calvin E. Murphy, J.) N.C. App. Full-text opinion.

Holding: Defendant had been shoplifting before the high-speed chase that ended in a fatal crash. Evidence of the shoplifting spree was admissible to explain why defendant was trying so aggressively to evade the officers chasing him. The voluminous and organized nature of the shoplifting expedition explained why defendant was driving in the manner that he was for purposes of the malice element of second-degree murder.

We find no error in defendant’s conviction of second-degree murder.

Although defendant argues that the specific details of the shoplifting should have been excluded, those details are important since a jury would not be able to understand why a person who had shoplifted a single shirt or DVD would be driving at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour in order to avoid arrest. We hold that the evidence regarding the shoplifting was relevant for a material purpose other than propensity and that this probative value was not outweighed by any unfair prejudice to defendant.

Defendant’s two previous citations for driving without a license – issued in the same month as the crash – were properly admitted as relevant to the issue of malice.

Officer Joel Patterson testified about defendant’s actions immediately after the collision: “The driver was elbowing the middle passenger in the neck and face area, hitting her several times, until her body finally laid over the front seat to the back seat. The driver then drug himself out from underneath the dashboard, drug himself over the middle passenger’s body out the back rear passenger door.”

The state’s evidence — suggesting defendant was continuing to try to escape regardless of the collision and in callous disregard for the condition of his passengers — was properly admitted as proof of malice.

Finally, the trial court instructed the jury, “You must be unanimous in your decision. In other words, all twelve jurors must agree. When you have agreed upon a unanimous verdict, your foreperson may so indicate on the verdict form that will be provided to you.”

Defendant claims that telling the jurors that they had to agree -– rather than that they had to agree to a verdict –- caused the jurors to “erroneously construe” the charge to be “a mandatory instruction that a verdict must be reached.”

We do not review a particular jury instruction in isolation. The sentences surrounding the language at issue both referenced unanimity in connection with an actual decision or verdict. Later, the trial court reiterated what the jury should do “[w]hen you have unanimously agreed upon a verdict and are ready to announce it….”

When viewed in context, the trial court’s instruction did not mislead the jury and was not coercive of the jury’s verdict.

No error.

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