Despite the defendant’s being a passenger in the getaway car, a Wake County Superior Court judge did not err when she instructed the jury on flight, a unanimous North Carolina Court of Appeals panel has ruled.
Breyon Bradford, appealing several convictions stemming from his role in a gas station shooting that injured two, argued that because he wasn’t driving the car he made away in, the state had no right to merit a flight instruction.
The appeals court disagreed, upholding the trial court’s decision and Bradford’s prison sentence of more than 10 years.
Look, but don’t shoot
According to court documents, on July 14, 2015, Bradford was sitting in the passenger seat of a Volkswagen Passat, parked in front of a gas pump at a Raleigh Exxon station.
Najee Cunningham and his brother James pulled up to a nearby pump, and Najee went inside the store to pay while James fueled the car. Najee’s 1-year-old son was also in the car.
According to James, Bradford was giving him a “crazy” look from inside the Passat, which was being driven by William Holden. James asked Bradford what he was looking at, to which Bradford allegedly responded by pointing a handgun out the window at James.
Upon returning to the car and hearing about the encounter, Najee confronted Holden and Bradford, yelling that his son was in the backseat of his car.
Both cars were being driven toward the gas station’s exit, with Holden’s Passat in front of Najee’s car, when Holden punched the gas, “squalling” his tires onto the main road.
That’s when Bradford leaned out of the passenger-side window and fired several shots toward Najee’s car, with one bullet striking Najee in the buttocks and another penetrating the wall of a nearby hotel, hitting a 19-year-old man in the thigh as he lay in bed.
Holden continued driving, fast, away from the Exxon until Bradford told him to stop the vehicle. Bradford hopped out of the car, ran away, and disposed of his pistol.
After authorities tracked down the Passat using video from the gas station that captured the license plate number, Holden led police to Bradford, who was arrested on numerous assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill charges.
Bradford testified on his own behalf at trial, claiming self-defense. According to him, Najee pointed a gun at him first. According to Najee and James, they were unarmed.
Despite objections from Bradford’s trial attorney, during the charge conference, the jury was instructed that while flight is not sufficient in itself to establish guilt, the jury could consider evidence of Bradford’s flight, along with other evidence, to determine whether he was guilty. While Bradford was acquitted of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill the 1-year-old, the jury found him guilty of the remaining counts.
You can run, but you can’t hide
Bradford appealed on the grounds that the state failed to carry its burden in presenting sufficient evidence to support a flight instruction. Judge Hunter Murphy noted in the court’s opinion that evidence that a defendant leaves a crime scene is not enough to support an instruction on flight, that there must also be evidence that the defendant took steps to avoid apprehension.
In this case, that evidence was clear to the court.
It is undisputed, Murphy wrote, that Bradford fired his gun as the Passat sped away from the gas station, told Holden to stop the car, abandoned his transportation, fled on foot, and intentionally disposed of his gun.
“All of the above evidence plainly supports an instruction on flight in spite of the fact that Defendant was not actually driving the Passat when it fled the Exxon station,” Murphy wrote.
Bradford was represented on appeal by Leslie Rawls of Charlotte, a specialist in state and federal appellate practice. Rawls wrote in her brief that there was a “sharp contrast” in the evidence heard by the jury, and that the trial court’s instruction on flight constituted plain error. She argued, among other things, that the trial court improperly required the jury to stack inferences that Bradford and Holden acted in concert because Bradford told Holden to drive away, and that Holden’s fast driving was evidence of Bradford’s flight.
Rawls declined to comment on the case, telling Lawyers Weekly that Bradford still has time to petition the state Supreme Court for discretionary review.
“I also think the decision speaks for itself,” she wrote in an email.
The 12-page decision is State v. Bradford (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-087-17). A digest of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher