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STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA,
v. Mecklenburg County
ROBERT ELESTER GOODWIN,
entered 2 June 2006 by Judge James W. Morgan in Mecklenburg
County Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 26 April
Attorney General Roy A. Cooper, III, by Assistant Attorney
General, Stormie D. Forte, for the State.
Russell J. Hollers, III, for Defendant-Appellant.
Defendant appeals from his conviction of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury (AWDWISI). Defendant contends that the trial court erred in allowing the State to cross-examine him about criminal charges from 1997 and 2001 which were voluntarily dismissed. (See footnote 1) We agree. For the reasons stated below, we set aside defendant's conviction for AWDWISI and remand for a new trial.
[The State begins re-cross examination of
Q: You don't know why [those two charges] were dismissed though, do you?
[Defendant objected and was overruled.]
A: They were dismissed, I don't know why.
Defendant argues that admission of this testimony was error because its sole purpose was to show defendant's propensity to commit crimes similar to the one charged, in violation of N.C. Gen.Stat. 8C-1, § Rule 404(b). (See footnote 2) He argues that the erroneous admission of this testimony prejudiced him, because the only witnesses to the alleged crime were defendant and the victim, Howard, and the case therefore turned on defendant's credibility.
The State contends that the purpose of the evidence was not to prove defendant's character or his propensity to commit the type of crime for which he was charged, but to show that defendant had the mistaken belief that he could claim self-defense, since he had also mistakenly claimed self-defense in 1997 and 2001.
We reject the State's argument. This case is analogous to State v. Morgan, 315 N.C. 626, 340 S.E.2d 84 (1986). In Morgan, the defendant shot the victim with a shotgun at the defendant's place of business. Id. at 628-29, 340 S.E.2d at 86. As a result, the defendant was charged with first-degree murder. Id. at 627, 340 S.E.2d at 86. The defendant testified that he was acting in self-defense. Id. at 631, 340 S.E.2d at 88. The State then cross- examined the defendant regarding his pointing a shotgun at a man at the defendant's place of business about three months prior to the alleged murder of the victim. Id. The State's argument in Morgan was essentially the same as in this case: The State here contends that the evidence brought out during defendant's cross-examination was admissible under Rule 404(b) because it was relevant to the issue of whether defendant was the aggressor in the altercation he described during direct examination. Since defendant claimed he shot [the victim] in self-defense and since the aggressor in an affray cannot claim the benefit of self-defense unless he has abandoned the fight and has withdrawn by giving notice to his adversary, whether the defendant was the aggressor was a contested element of defendant's self-defense claim. The State asserts that this evidence, therefore, was relevant to show that defendant's pointing of the shotgun at the decedent and shooting him was not in self-defense.
Morgan, 315 N.C. at 637-38, 340 S.E.2d at 91-92 (internal citation and quotation omitted).
Rejecting the State's argument, the Supreme Court held that
[t]he State's rationale is precisely what is prohibited by Rule 404(b). In order to reach its conclusion, the State is arguing that, because defendant pointed a shotgun at Mr. Hill three months earlier, he has a propensity for violence and therefore he must have been the aggressor in the alleged altercation with [the victim] and, thus, could not have been acting in self-defense.
Id. at 638, 340 S.E.2d at 92.
In the case sub judice, the State has emphasized defendant's mistaken belief that he had any right to claim self-defense, apparently trying to fit the proffered evidence into the absence of mistake purpose as listed in Rule 404(b). We have been unable to determine how evidence that defendant was mistaken could possibly tend to prove an absence of mistake. Even if the purpose of the evidence as the State proposes could be proper, therecord also contains no indication that defendant was in fact mistaken regarding his belief that he had a right to claim self- defense in the 1997 and 2001 incidents _ there is simply not sufficient information in the record regarding those incidents for anyone to make such a determination. All the jury could possibly draw from the evidence of the 1997 and 2001 incidents, as it was presented was defendant's propensity for violence. Thus, we are left with the admission of evidence which could only be considered as proof of defendant's violent disposition, and specifically his propensity to attack others on slight provocation and then to claim self-defense without justification. The theory of relevancy articulated by the State on this appeal is plainly prohibited by the express terms of Rule 404(b) disallowing '[e]vidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts . . . to prove the character of a person in order to show that he acted in conformity therewith.' 315 N.C. at 638, 340 S.E.2d at 92 (quoting N.C. Gen. Stat. § 8C-1, Rule 404(b)).
We must next consider whether the erroneous admission of evidence of the 1997 and 2001 incidents prejudiced defendant. The test for prejudicial error is whether there is a reasonable possibility that, had the error not been committed, a different result would have been reached at trial. State v. Scott, 331 N.C. 39, 413 S.E.2d 787 (1992) (citing N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1443(a)). We conclude that there is a reasonable possibility that the jury would have reached a different result if this evidence had not been admitted. In the case sub judice, there were no witnesses to theassault other than victim and the defendant. There was evidence attacking the credibility of both the victim and defendant, including impairment by drugs and/or alcohol at the time of the assault. There was no dispute that defendant stabbed the victim, so the physical evidence actually recovered by the police neither supports nor refutes defendant's claim of self-defense. It is true that the police did not find the pipe which defendant claimed that Howard wielded against him, but considering all of the evidence, we cannot conclude that the error was harmless. Evidence of not just one, but two, prior assaults by defendant, under similar circumstances, and his claims of self-defense which the State stressed as mistaken could certainly have had a significant effect upon the jury's assessment of defendant's credibility.
We therefore hold that the trial court erred in its admission of evidence of the 1997 and 2001 incidents pursuant to Rule 404(b), and that this error prejudiced defendant. We set aside defendant's conviction for AWDWISI, and remand for a new trial. Due to our ruling on this issue, we need not address defendant's assignment of error to his sentence.
Judges McCULLOUGH and BRYANT concur.
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