Article written by Kyle Perrotti from www.themountaineer.com
For its 50th anniversary, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has been holding special sessions across the state, including one at the courtroom in the Historic Haywood County Courthouse.
During a special session in Waynesville last week, a three-judge panel — which includes Waynesville native Hunter Murphy — heard oral arguments on two cases.
Prior to getting into the oral argument, Murphy, Judge Richard Dietz and Chief Judge Linda McGee all had some words for the audience. Although Dietz didn’t have much to say, Murphy was happy to welcome people to the special session.
McGee, who has been in session across the Tarheel State, had praise for the historic courthouse’s beauty.
“It’s clear that whoever selected this location for this building knew what they were doing,” she said.
Those in attendance received a packet, which featured a brief description of the two cases being argued, a pocket guide to the North Carolina Judicial Branch, a brochure for the Celebration of North Carolina Courts, a booklet outlining the first 50 years of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and a brief guide to the court.
The special session
The panel, which assessed each side of each case with heavy scrutiny, also took extra time during the arguments to make sure those in attendance understood what was going on by stopping the attorneys from time to time for clarifications.
In each case, the defense attorney presented his argument, the state provided a rebuttal and then the defense attorney got about five minutes to get the final word in.
The first case came out of Clay County, where Matthew Coleman was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter following the slaying of his wife.
Defense attorney James V. Parker argued that at the time of the killing, Coleman was enduring a hypoglycemic episode — brought on by his diabetes — which made him unaware of his actions to the point he had no recollection following the killing. The specific term for the defense is autonotism, a term which Dietz requested Parker define for the audience.
“Autonotism is a legal defense in which the defendant asserts that he was not voluntarily in control of his actions and thus cannot be convinced of the crime,” the case description says. “The jury did not convict Coleman of first degree murder, but convicted him of the lesser included offense of voluntary manslaughter.”
State's Attorney John P. Barkley argued that the autonotism defense doesn't apply to Coleman's case, and he added that he believed the expert witness — whose testimony aided the prosecutor — was valid.
"Our argument is this was intentional ... there's nothing on the record that would show otherwise," he said.
Parker argued that the trial court erred on multiple fronts, including allowing a state's expert to testify outside his area of expertise, not providing proper jury instruction and not including involuntary manslaughter as one of the crimes to be considered by the jury.
“I’m surprised the jury convicted in this case, but I’m here to decide whether or not the trial was fair,” Dietz said, further highlighting for the audience the role of the court.
The court members will take the arguments under advisement and render a decision for several months.
The second case featured a decades-old property dispute in Jackson County. The attorney for the plaintiffs and appellees, Scott Taylor, argued that the trial court erred in determining that the class of the beneficiaries of the property and the individuals in which the remainder interest vests can’t be determined until the death of the only surviving original beneficiary.
Waynesville attorney Rusty McLean argued against the lower court opinion, which he appealed.
Bringing the special anniversary session to Waynesville wasn’t originally in the cards for the court of appeals, but after some discussion, the court decided to bring to come to Murphy’s hometown.
“It started with them trying to get on Cherokee Tribal court,” said Murphy, who graduated from Tuscola in 1999. “We just decided let’s make it a two-day thing since we’re already headed west, and we’ll try to work something out in either Waynesville or Sylva, and the calendar worked better for it to be in Waynesville this year.”
Murphy said it is important for local attorneys to see an appellate court session in-person to get a better understanding of what happens in Raleigh.
“When people see who we are and how we think and how we act, it helps people feel more at ease with this. Most attorneys will never have an oral argument before the court of appeals," Murphy said. "They’re rare and we want people to come in there and be more relaxed and be more able to get into the nitty-gritty of their case, which is more important than trying to deal with the stress of presenting your case. I think the more you can humanize the court.”
Although the court usually hears oral arguments in Raleigh, Murphy said that because of this year’s big anniversary, they have been on the road more than normal.
“This year we’ve had a lot of traveling sessions, but that’s usually not the case,” he said. “They try to normally do a session at each law school and a few others.”
The special Waynesville session came on the heels of a special anniversary session where about 300 former law clerks and 35 former judges came together. Considering there have only been only 78 judges on the court since its founding in 1967, that’s an impressive gathering.
“To have over half us there in that room was really neat,” Murphy said.
The Court of Appeals is made up of 15 judges, who sit on three-judge panels that rotate every six weeks. The court hears over 1,000 cases per year, but the caseload doesn’t diminish any case’s importance. Everyone is entitled to appeal a lower court’s ruling, and often the court of appeals’ opinion can become precedent for future cases.
Murphy said although everyone assumes they’re going to get a fair trial, sometimes the court can make mistakes.
“If someone didn’t get a fair trial, then that’s a huge problem,” he said. “Everybody, no matter if they’re here in Waynesville or down in Wilmington, they need to know the law is going to apply the same to them, and if there’s a mistake made, we’re going to fix it.”