State v. McKoy: The Court of Appeals Closes the Door on Character Evidence Harmful to the State; Eases the State’s Burden of Overcoming Proof of Self Defense.
In the recently decided case State v. McKoy, A fractured North Carolina Court of Appeals panel ruled 2-1 in favor of the State; establishing precedent that not only undermines defense attorneys’ ability to cross examine witnesses, but also weakens the State’s burden of proof necessary to overcome a finding of self-defense.
In McKoy, The Defendant, David McKoy, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter after killing a man with whom he had a long-standing hostile relationship. McKoy and the decedent, Augustus Brandon, had known each other since sixth grade, however, McKoy avoided the decedent as much as possible due to his reputation for gang banging and armed robbery. In fact, one of the decedent’s associates robbed McKoy’s friend of his fake chain at gunpoint. Furthermore, the evidence at trial tended to show that the decedent had routinely bullied and threatened the McKoy prior to his death.
On the day of the incident, McKoy was waiting to make a turn onto Hamlin Road in Durham when the decedent passed by him, spotting him in the process. McKoy eventually turned onto Hamlin behind the decedent, but suddenly the decedent pulled off the road, waited for the McKoy to pass him, and then began to tail the McKoy’s car. McKoy tried to shake the decedent, but instead the decedent raced past McKoy’s car and blocked off the road so that McKoy could not pass. McKoy put his car in reverse and attempted to flee, but accidentally backed his car into a ditch. The decedent then drove towards McKoy’s immobilized vehicle, got out of the car, and began to approach McKoy. McKoy, fearing for his life, panicked, and fired out with a semi-automatic weapon. According to McKoy’s account, he thought he heard return fire, and fired two more times. Two of the shots struck the decedent, and he subsequently perished.
Before the trial began, the State filed a motion in limine to stop McKoy from introducing text messages from the decedent’s phone that showed him arranging violent acts, and pictures of him holding guns on the basis that such evidence of prior acts would be more prejudicial than probative. In response, McKoy pointed out that the State was opening the door to impeachment because the Decedent’s parents were going to talk about their son’s good, “happy” character. Furthermore, Mckoy sought to impeach the Decedent’s father, who denied knowing anything about his son having guns, even though he had previously reviewed the contents of the phone with a detective. The trial court sided with the State.
As a result, McKoy was not able to fully impeach the state’s witnesses. Furthermore, the violent language and pictures of guns from his phone never made it to the jury. Therefore, they never factored into their deliberation in deciding whether McKoy feared for his life and acted reasonably in firing out of his car window (which would allow the jury to find he acted in self defense).
The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court; stating “Mr. Clark’s knowledge of his son’s prior possession of guns and his characterization of Mr. Brandon’s overall demeanor are not directly related to Mr. Brandon’s alleged propensity for violence” The Court of Appeals was not unanimous, however. Speaking in dissent, one judge pointed out that the Court’s ruling went against the commonly accepted practice of character evidence impeachment once a party has “opened the door” by introducing evidence of good character.
“‘Opening the door’” is the principle where one party introduces evidence of a particular fact and the opposing party may introduce evidence to explain or rebut it, even though the rebuttal evidence would be incompetent or irrelevant, if offered initially.” State v. Thaggard, 168 N.C. In Judge Tyson’s dissenting view, “The State opened the door through the detective’s and Brandon’s parents’ testimonies that asserted Brandon’s (1) lack of possession and use of guns; (2) no involvement in gang activities; (3) reputation for peacefulness; and (4) being characterized as ‘always a happy guy.’” Furthermore, had that evidence been introduced, it was reasonable that a jury may have reasoned there was enough evidence to find McKoy not guilty.
In all, Judge Tyson opined that “The trial court’s limitations on cross-examination and exclusion of corroborating evidence, after the State had opened the door, unlawfully eased the State’s burdens of proof and to overcome self-defense.”
While this decision is unfortunate, there is still the possibility for it to be overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court. Let’s hope it does.