Morgan upholds death penalty, dissents in castle doctrine case, in final Supreme Court rulings

N.C. Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan

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  • State Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan's final opinion day featured a 183-page opinion defending a death penalty verdict, a dissent in a castle doctrine case, and a vote with Republican colleagues to fight back environnentalists' challenge of a mining quarry's state permit.
  • Morgan has announced plans to step down from the court next week with 16 months left in his term. Gov. Roy Cooper, a fellow Democrat, will name Morgan's replacement.
  • Republicans hold a 5-2 majority on the state's highest court.

Outgoing state Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan delivered a 183-page ruling upholding a death penalty verdict, dissented in a case involving the castle doctrine, and joined Republican colleagues to uphold a mining quarry’s challenged environmental permit during his last day on the bench.

Morgan has announced that he will step down from the state’s highest court next week. Today marked the last day for state Supreme Court opinions involving Morgan’s input.

In the seven opinions handed down today in Raleigh, Morgan wrote two majority opinions, one dissent, and one concurring opinion. He also joined fellow Democrat Justice Anita Earls’ dissents in two other cases.

In State v. Richardson, Morgan joined the court’s five Republican justices for a 6-1 ruling upholding a death penalty verdict.

“While this appeal arising from the abuse and murder of a young child presents this Court with a disturbing series of facts and circumstances, its resolution largely requires the application of well-established legal principles to the issues raised by defendant. We have carefully considered each issue and, being mindful of both the extremity of the crimes committed by defendant and the resulting sentence imposed upon him, we conclude that defendant’s trial was free from prejudicial error and that his sentence of death must be upheld,” Morgan wrote.

A Johnston County jury had convicted Jonathan Douglas Richardson of killing his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter in 2010. Richardson also faced charges of sexually abusing the girl.

Over the course of more than 180 pages, Morgan knocked down each of Richardson’s objections to his trial and sentencing. “[W]e conclude that defendant received a fair trial and capital sentencing proceeding free of prejudicial error and that the death sentence recommended by the jury and imposed by the trial court is not excessive or disproportionate.”

While signing on to Morgan’s opinion, the five Republican justices supported a separate three-page concurring opinion, written by Justice Phil Berger Jr.. It distanced the GOP justices from Morgan’s conclusion that law enforcement officers had violated Richardson’s Miranda rights during questioning.

Earls supported Richardson’s conviction but would have called for a new sentencing hearing. She detailed her concerns in a 37-page dissent.

“Given the severity and brutality of [the] injuries and the evidence of the abuse she suffered, it would be easy in this case to excuse any errors committed by the trial court by reasoning that Mr. Richardson’s death sentence was inevitable, regardless of the trial court’s conduct,” Earls wrote. “It is this line of reasoning that I believe underlies the majority’s decision today, though it does not say so outright.”

“Instead, the majority overlooks blatant errors committed by the trial court by employing shaky legal reasoning to affirm Mr. Richardson’s conviction and death sentence,” she added. “But as Mr. Richardson’s appellate counsel eloquently explained during oral argument before this Court, ‘if the rule of law matters at all, it matters not just in the easy cases and the convenient cases; it matters most in the hard cases.’ This is, without question, an extraordinarily hard case. But the rule of law does not cease to exist in the face of any crime, no matter how extreme.”

Morgan’s other final majority decision also involved a murder case. This one did not involve the death penalty.

In State v. Abbitt and Albarran, the 6-1 majority affirmed a lower court ruling rejecting evidence from defendants in a 2016 Salisbury murder case. The two defendants hoped to provide evidence pointing toward two other possible suspects.

Morgan and his Republican colleagues agreed that the evidence could not be admitted because it would not have cleared the two defendants charged in the case. As with the Richardson case, Earls wrote a solo dissent.

A third murder case, State v. Hicks, prompted a three-way split among the seven-member court. Justices voted, 5-2, to reverse the state Court of Appeals and uphold a second-degree murder conviction for a woman who shot her boyfriend in the back during a 2017 confrontation at her Randolph County home.

Earls wrote the lead opinion, joined by Chief Justice Paul Newby and Justice Trey Allen, both Republicans. Those three justices agreed that a trial judge had the authority to tell jurors that defendant Wendy Dawn Lamb Hicks could lose the protection of the state’s “castle doctrine” statute. Hicks would lose that protection if evidence in her case showed that she was the aggressor in the confrontation that led to the shooting death of Caleb Adams.

“[O]ur only task is to determine whether, in the light most favorable to the State, the evidence was sufficient to support a jury finding that Ms. Hicks was the aggressor when she shot and killed Mr. Adams,” Earls wrote. “The Court of Appeals erroneously considered the evidence in the light most favorable to Ms. Hicks and wrongly concluded that the evidence was insufficient.”

“We hold that the evidence was sufficient to give the aggressor doctrine instruction, find no error in the trial court’s decision to give the instruction, and therefore reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals,” Earls added.

Justice Richard Dietz wrote a separate concurring opinion, joined by Berger. It questioned the lead opinion for “incorporating” a common-law aggressor doctrine into the state law dealing with castle-doctrine and stand-your-ground defenses.

“As the multiple separate opinions in this case illustrate, even this Court is struggling to understand how the ‘aggressor’ language from our existing case law (and the pattern jury instructions) can be squared with the various statutory self- defense provisions that now govern,” Dietz wrote. “These are complicated and thorny legal issues that call out for clarity. But we are constrained to address only those arguments that were adequately raised and preserved in the case.”

“These complicated legal issues were not and therefore must wait for another day,” he added. “As a result, not only does the law suffer, but so does Hicks.”

Morgan and Justice Tamara Barringer both wrote dissents in Hicks. “Here, defendant held the statutory presumption accorded to her by N.C.G.S. § 14-51.2, as the lawful occupant of her home, that she was entitled to employ deadly force against Mr. Adams due to a reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm to herself or her daughter as a result of the decedent’s unlawful and forcible entry into defendant’s home, of which defendant was aware, after defendant instructed Mr. Adams to stay away from her residence, after he burst into defendant’s home and ultimately her bedroom, after he took defendant’s firearm from her bedroom nightstand, after Mr. Adams threatened to kill defendant, and after the two physically tussled with one another,” Morgan wrote.

“Under the castle doctrine, Ms. Hicks ‘is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm to … herself or another,’” Barringer wrote. “There was insufficient evidence to support that Ms. Hicks was the initial aggressor, and therefore, the trial court should not have given the aggressor doctrine instruction.”

Outside of cases dealing with murder, Morgan joined Republicans in a 5-1 decision upholding a 2013 environmental permit for a Martin Marietta mining quarry in Carteret County. A state administrative law judge upheld the permit in 2016. The case is titled Sound Rivers v. NC Department of Environmental Quality.

“Given the unchallenged, binding findings of fact, the due regard the ALJ gave the factual matters within the Division’s demonstrated knowledge and expertise, and the ALJ’s plain language analysis of the biological integrity standard, we affirm,” Barringer wrote for the majority.

Barringer and two other GOP colleagues joined Morgan’s final written concurrence in the case. “[T]he law is clear that, while a reviewing court could reach a different result based on the evidence than the result reached by an administrative agency if the reviewing court was free to do so, nonetheless if there is substantial evidence to support the agency’s decision, then the court must give deference to the specialized knowledge and expertise of the agency, including facts and inferences as directed by N.C.G.S. § 150B-34(a), and affirm the agency’s determination,” Morgan wrote.

“Here, although the dissent bemoans the majority’s determination to uphold the administrative law judge’s final decision that the Department properly issued the discharge permit, nonetheless the majority has correctly implemented the applicable statutory and appellate law, even in the face of the dissent’s disapproval of the agency’s inferences regarding its authority to issue the permit in light of the pertinent rules,” he added.

Earls wrote a solo dissent, focusing on the permit’s potential harm to Blounts Creek in Beaufort County. “Much of Blounts Creek’s aquatic life is highly dependent on the maintenance of the creek’s salt and freshwater balance and existing water quality,” she argued. A state permit “has allowed Martin Marietta to discharge twelve million gallons of wastewater into this fragile ecosystem each day, threatening to transform Blounts Creek into a type of stream system that is “not normally found in North Carolina’s coastal plain.”

Today’s opinions mark the last batch that will be issued under the state Supreme Court’s current configuration. Morgan will step down next week with roughly 16 months left in his term. Gov. Roy Cooper, a fellow Democrat, will appoint Morgan’s successor.

The state Supreme Court returns to oral arguments on Sept. 12.