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Criminal Practice – Murder – Death Penalty – Mitigating Circumstance – Impaired Ability to Understand

Given the evidence of defendant’s limited intellectual capacity, his chronic depression and his post-traumatic stress disorder, the trial court erred when it failed to submit to the jury the mitigating circumstance that defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law was impaired.

We find no error in defendant’s conviction of first-degree murder; however, he is entitled to a new sentencing proceeding.

Motion to Dismiss

The state’s evidence tended to show that defendant had a history of abusing his wife, Maria; that he had threatened to kill Maria and to dispose of her body; that he violently attacked Maria on Nov. 18, 2010; that defendant was the last person to see Maria alive; that he had been seen in the general area in which Maria’s body was discovered; that defendant had attempted to clean up the location at which he had assaulted Maria; that defendant sent text messages from Maria’s phone to her friend, Merlyn Rodriguez, in an attempt to establish that Maria had voluntarily left the area; that Maria’s clothing and blood were found in defendant’s vehicle; that defendant made conflicting statements concerning the circumstances surrounding Maria’s disappearance to various people; and that the autopsy performed upon Maria’s body indicated, consistently with other evidence tending to show that blood was emanating from her nose as defendant carried her away, that Maria had aspirated blood prior to her death. Aside from the fact that the evidence contains ample support for the state’s contention that defendant caused Maria’s death, these facts permit the inference that defendant acted with premeditation and deliberation. As a result, the trial court did not err by denying defendant’s motion to dismiss the first-degree murder charge for insufficiency of the evidence.

Expert Witness

It is entirely proper to elicit testimony indicative of potential witness bias, or the lack thereof. The prosecutor’s decision to elicit evidence to the effect that Dr. Stephen Kramer had previously performed work for one of defendant’s trial counsel did not “inject” the prosecutor’s personal opinions into defendant’s intellectual capabilities. On the contrary, the evidence elicited tended to show a lack of bias on the part of Dr. Kramer by demonstrating that he had previously worked on behalf of both the state and criminal defendants.

Intellectual Disability Proceeding

Although defendant presented sufficient evidence to support a determination that he should be deemed exempt from the death penalty on intellectual disability grounds, the state presented expert testimony from Dr. Kramer tending to support a contrary determination. We cannot conclude that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to set aside the jury’s verdict in the state’s favor with respect to whether defendant was exempt from the death penalty under G.S. § 15A-2005.

Mitigating Circumstance

Defendant asserts that the trial court erred at his capital sentencing proceeding by failing to instruct the jury with respect to G.S. § 15A-2000(f)(6), which addresses a defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law.

Defendant contends that the record contains substantial evidence tending to show that he is intellectually disabled and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder or another mental condition and that he killed Maria in the course of a marital crisis characterized by emotional turmoil. Defendant asserts, “The combination of subnormal intelligence, psychological disorders, and/or a breakdown in a relationship has often been held to support submission of both the (f)(2) and the (f)(6) statutory mitigating circumstances.”

A trial court has no discretion in determining whether to submit a mitigating circumstance when substantial evidence in support of the circumstance has been presented.

Evidence, expert or lay, of some mental disorder, disease, or defect to the degree that it affected the defendant’s ability to understand and control his actions supports submission of the (f)(6) mitigating circumstance. Even “[i]f the jury determines that the

defendant does not have an intellectual disability as defined by [G.S. § 15A-2005], the jury may consider any evidence of intellectual disability presented during the sentencing hearing when determining aggravating or mitigating factors and the defendant’s sentence.” § 15A-2005(g).

The record contains ample support for the submission of the (f)(6) mitigating circumstance. The record contains considerable evidence that defendant suffered from an intellectual disability, that his intellectual disability initially manifested itself before he reached the age of 18, and that his intelligence level will remain constant throughout his life. In addition, the record contains ample evidence that defendant suffers from multiple deficiencies in adaptive functioning and that his exposure to extreme poverty, severe malnutrition, constant violence, and harmful pesticides, coupled with his lack of formal education and access to meaningful health care, make it more likely that defendant suffers from an intellectual disability.

Furthermore, the expert testimony in the record contains near-unanimous support for the proposition that defendant suffers from an emotional disorder, such as chronic depression or posttraumatic stress disorder, and that he killed Maria during a time of marital turmoil. The evidence of defendant’s mental limitations and disturbed and overwrought thinking supports a rational inference that his ability to fully comprehend the wrongfulness of his conduct and to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law was adversely affected at the time that he murdered Maria.

Thus, the evidence more than suffices to permit a rational juror to conclude that defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law at the time that he murdered Maria was impaired, so that the trial court erred by failing to submit the (f)(6) mitigating circumstance to the jury.

Even though the record contains evidence tending to suggest that, at some level, defendant understood the criminality of his conduct and attempted to undertake actions that were intended to avoid the consequences of his wrongful conduct, that fact does not obviate the necessity for the submission of the (f)(6) mitigating circumstance given that the relevant legal test does not treat any recognition of wrongful conduct on the part of a defendant as sufficient to support the non-submission of the statutory mitigating circumstance in question.

An erroneous failure to submit a statutory mitigating circumstance to the jury at a capital sentencing hearing is not cured by the submission of other mitigating circumstances, even the catch-all circumstance.

Defendant is entitled to a new capital sentencing hearing.


(Martin, C.J.) Defendant beat and abducted Maria before strangling her to death. After defendant strangled Maria, he decapitated her and hid her head and the rest of her body in two separate places. Maria’s skull was not found for two and a half years.

The majority overlooks the complete lack of evidence linking defendant’s purported intellectual impairment, mental disorders, and marital strife to his homicidal conduct. The majority also ignores the evidence showing that defendant’s actions were carefully premeditated and that he took many steps to conceal his identity as the perpetrator, evidence that would clearly prevent any reasonable juror from finding the existence of the (f)(6) mitigating circumstance.

For those reasons, the majority’s holding is unsupported by the relevant sentencing statute and is inconsistent with the vast majority of our decisions interpreting it. I therefore respectfully dissent.

State v. Rodriguez (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-063-18, 68 pp.) (Sam Ervin IV, J.) (Mark Martin, C.J., joined by Paul Newby, J., dissenting) Appealed from Forsyth County Superior Court (R. Stuart Albright, J.) Mary Carla Babb and Kimberly Callahan for the state; Barbara Blackman, John Carella and Kathryn VandenBerg for defendant. N.C. S. Ct.


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