Entering a murder victim’s skeletal remains into evidence for a jury to see was more probative than prejudicial, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled in a case of first impression.
Rodney Enoch was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Debra Sellars. He claims that Sellars’ bones were displayed by prosecutors during trial to excite the sympathies or to inflame the passions of the jury, and that a “distinct odor” filled the courtroom every time the remains were exposed.
The appeals court disagreed, saying there were legitimate reasons for the displays and that Alamance County Superior Court Judge James Hardin Jr. did not abuse his discretion in allowing the evidence.
“Though we may have found other means of establishing Sellars’ identity sufficient, the admission of the skull was more probative than prejudicial and properly admitted under Rule 403” of the state’s Rules of Evidence, Judge Robert Hunter Jr. wrote for a unanimous panel.
The skull is in
According to court documents, Enoch and Sellars were in an “on-again, off-again” relationship, and Enoch had assaulted Sellars several times before her disappearance in April 2012. Six months later, Justin Curtis found her remains while hunting near Burlington. Curtis picked up the skull and took it to his parents’ house before calling the local sheriff.
Enoch argued at trial that Curtis would not be able to identify the skull as being the one he found in the woods, but Curtis did so “by the two front teeth.” He also argued that prosecutors gained nothing from showing the skull because none of the expert witnesses drew any conclusion from it, and that introducing the femur added nothing to photographs that were already admitted.
Generally, Enoch argued, the skeletal remains were not necessary to establish the victim’s identity because “things were done with that evidence that identified her.”
But Hardin, the trial judge, found that the skeletal remains would not be duplicative of photographs and that the skull’s evidentiary value was not “substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”
Enoch’s attorney, appellate defender Anne Gomez, disagreed.
“Entering the skull and other bones into evidence and repeatedly displaying them to the jury undoubtedly had a visceral effect on the jury, leading to ‘an undue tendency to suggest a decision on an improper basis,’ likely an emotional one,” Gomez wrote, citing language from 1988’s State v. Hennis.
The bones tell the tale
Curtis identified the skull as being the one he found. Forensic tests of the femur, which was also entered into evidence, had shown a 99.9999 percent probability that the skeleton belonged to Sellars.
The court offered jurors the opportunity to step down and see more closely the assembled ribs and damage that an expert witness said was caused by a sharp instrument. A medical examiner later testified that sharp instrument struck Sellars’ heart and lung, killing her. He declared the death a homicide.
While Gomez found the introduction of the skull and femur completely unnecessary, she conceded that the ribs were “arguably more relevant” because they showed Sellars’ injuries. She noted, however, that the expert witness generally uses an anatomical skeleton to point out injuries to a jury, rather than that of the actual deceased.
On appeal, Enoch argued that the trial court erred in admitting the remains under Rule 403 because they were more prejudicial than probative, that the repetitive display of the bones to the jury violated his due process rights, and that the trial court should have granted a mistrial. The court considered only the first argument, however, and found that because of the bones’ relevancy, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the remains and showing them to the jury.
No problem with trial court’s ‘sound discretion’
Regarding the first-impression issue of admitting a homicide victim’s skull as evidence, the appeals court accepted the state’s arguments that it needed the skull to prove Sellar’s identity and race and that it needed Curtis to identify the skull so other witnesses could later identify other pertinent bones.
“Defendant waived all chain of custody arguments, so we assume the skull established a chain of custody to bring in the other pertinent remains to prove the State’s case,” Hunter wrote.
The court also found the rib bones and femur more probative than prejudicial, holding that evidence showing the nature and number of a victim’s wounds is probative under the state’s case law, that the femur was used to establish Sellar’s identity through DNA testing, and that the Supreme Court has found DNA evidence highly probative under Rule 403.
Gomez said that the defense did not contest that the skeleton was that of Sellars, and that there was no injury to the skull.
“Further, because of the great danger of prejudice that would come from displaying a homicide victim’s skull to the jury, the trial court should have ruled that Curtis could identify a photograph of the skull,” Gomez said.
Gomez also said that prosecutors had another reason for showing the skull, one that the Court of Appeals failed to address—for the effect it would have on the jury.
“A decomposing corpse of a murder victim would also have an effect on a jury, but in homicide cases where the remains are not skeletonized, the fact that a victim is dead and the manner of death are proven through testimony and illustrated by photographs, not by displaying the corpse to the jurors,” Gomez said.
Gomez said that she plans to petition the Supreme Court for review.
A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s office, Laura Brewer, declined to comment on the “active case.”
The 40-page decision is State v. Enoch (Lawyers Weekly No. 011-289-18). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @NCLWHamacher