Court Cases By State - North Carolina

Court Cases by North Carolina

Burt ex. rel. County of Wake Adult Guardianship Programs v. North Carolina Dept. of Corrections
605 S.E.2d 740 (N.C. Ct. App. 2004)

Burt had been diagnosed with FAS, mental retardation, conduct disorder, schizo-affective disorder, major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD, impulse control disorder, bipolar affective disorder, and anti-social personality disorder. She had been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons at least 20 times, and was declared mentally incompetent at the age of 18. While being housed in an acute mental health unit, Burt became very agitated and began banging her head. When she was being restrained, she spit in a Sergeant's face, who then immediately and spontaneously hit her twice in the face with a closed fist. Burt suffered injuries and was awarded compensation under the State Tort Claims Act. The Department of Corrections appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment.

State v. Jones
153 N.C. App. 358, 570 S.E. 2d 128 (N.C.Ct. App. 2002)

Jones was convicted of murder and several other offenses based in part on statement he had made to the police. Jones moved to suppress his statements, alleging that he lacked the mental capacity to knowingly and understandingly waive his Constitutional rights. He offered expert testimony that he was mentally retarded, with an IQ between 55 and 65, and that he had FAS. 570 S.E. 2d at 132.

The trial court admitted the statements, holding that they had been given freely, voluntarily and knowingly. 570 S.E. 2d at 363. Police officers gave Jones his Miranda rights in a particularly clear manner. 570 S.E. 2d at 361-62.

The appellate court upheld the admission of the statements. It deferred greatly to the trial court's findings of fact. 570 S.E. 2d at 363-64. The appellate court's own evaluation of the issue does not always clearly distinguish between whether the confessions were voluntary and whether they waiver was knowing. That court's discussion of whether the waiver was knowing focusses purely on the defendant's I.Q.. There is no consideration of whether FAS itself might have some additional significance in determining whether a defendant understood his  Miranda rights.

This decision and others like it suggest that in presenting and evaluating a claim that an individual with FAS/FAE did not knowingly waive his or her rights, more particularized consideration should be given to the impact of FAS/FAE. Individuals with that disability often have considerable difficulty understanding cause and effect; that would be of obvious importance to an individual's ability to understand, for example, a warning that if he gives up his rights the result will be that what he says can and will be used against him.

State v. Locklear
349 N.C. 118, 505 S.E. 2d 277 (N.C. 1998)

Locklear was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Locklear offered evidence of 21 different possible mitigating factors, including evidence that he had FAS. 505 S.E. 2d at 286. No juror found the existence of any mitigating factor at all. 505 S.E. 2d at 285.

It is not clear whether the jury did not believe that Locklear had FAS, or concluded that that disability did not constitute a mitigating factor.

State v. Rose
339 N.C. 172, 451 S.E. 2d 211 (N.C. 1994)

Rose was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He appealed the sentence on the ground, among other things, that the trial judge had refused to appoint a neuropsychologist to evaluate whether he had FAS.

The trial court's opinion, and that of the appellate court, appear not to fully understand the distinction between (a) FAS and alcohol abuse by the defendant, and (b) FAS and other behavioral disorders.

The appellate opinion notes that the trial court had appointed two psychiatrists who concluded that Rose did or might suffer from eight problems or disorders other than FAS. Rose offered an affidavit from a neuropsychologist explaining that neurological and neuropsychological testing would reveal whether Rose had FAS. The appellate court held:

"The affidavit, however, did not indicate how such further testing would affect defendant's case. Two other psychiatrists had already indicated that defendant suffered from alcohol abuse, and one had indicated that he suffered from other disorders as well. Defendant presented no evidence indicating a particularized need to establish that he was suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome."

451 S.E. 2d at 220.

FAS, of course, is entirely different from alcohol abuse. The existence of evidence of "other disorders" does not mean that proof of FAS might not be highly relevant.

This case does, however, illustrate the need for counsel to articulate, and courts to understand, specifically why FAS would be a mitigating factor--(1) it is organic in nature, not simply a clinical term for a bad disposition, (2) it arises from circumstances entirely beyond the individual's control (unlike, for example, alcohol abuse), and (3) it affects the ability of a defendant to understand the norms of society or to conform his conduct to them.

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