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Before a federal constitutional error can be held harmless, the court must be able to declare a belief that it was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
Shelly Diane Chalflinch, aged twenty-six, and her daughter, Christina S. Chalflinch, aged nine, resided in apartment 9 of the Marriage Quarters behind the Pinehurst Hotel in Pinehurst, North Carolina. They visited with Ms. Chalflinch's father, G. W. Frye, in Aberdeen on Sunday, 24 August 1980. Mr. Frye never saw his daughter or granddaughter alive after that evening. On the morning of Tuesday, 26 August 1980, the bodies of Ms. Chalflinch and her daughter were found in a mutilated condition in the Chalflinch apartment. Police officers who entered the apartment saw blood on the floors and walls of the apartment. Pieces of flesh were scattered throughout the living area of the apartment. Small pieces of furniture had been overturned and several chairs were broken. It was hot in the apartment and the bodies had already begun to decompose. Ms. Chalflinch's body had been mutilated beyond recognition, and several feet of her intestines protruded from a large wound to her abdomen. Christina's body also bore multiple stab wounds and a brown electrical cord had been wrapped around her neck. A bloody knife blade, broken at both ends, with the inscription "R. H. Forschne," was found in the apartment. Following the initial investigation, the apartment was secured and remained padlocked until the time of trial. Sergeant Don Davis of the Pinehurst Police Department was placed in charge of the investigation and kept the only key to the apartment.
On 28 August 1980 SBI Agent Wade Anders obtained permission from the defendant to search his home, apartment 4 at the Marriage Quarters complex. Defendant was asked to sign a form indicating his consent to a search of his apartment. He signed the form after it was read to him and after he talked with a friend. The form was signed at 5:21 p.m. on 28 August 1980. The apartment was searched that same evening, while defendant was present. Items seized during the search included the tool box in which defendant kept his kitchen equipment for his job as a cook at the Pinehurst Hotel. In the box were knives bearing the inscription "R. H. Forschner" on the blades. At the door to defendant's apartment, visible bloodstains were found on the concrete stoop. The luminol test indicated the presence of blood on the doorknob. The tool box taken from defendant's apartment had a small spot on the lid which tests revealed to be blood and the blade of one of the R. H. Forschner knives tested positive with phenolphthalein. A bloodstain was also found on a pillow at the head of defendant's bed. Blood was found in other areas throughout the apartment and bare footprints of blood were found all over the floor in the kitchen. On that evening, defendant had a cast on his left hand. Further, an SBI agent who qualified as an expert in the field of fingerprint and palm print identification testified that a latent palm print on the wall of the bedroom of Ms. Chalflinch's apartment was the same as that of the left palm print of the defendant. Finally, several friends of defendant's testified that the ring found inside one of the stab wounds in Ms. Chalflinch's body was the ring normally worn by defendant.
Upon receiving the jury verdict finding the defendant guilty of both murders, the court convened the sentence determination phase of the trial before the same jury. The State essentially relied on the testimony presented at the guilt phase but also offered the testimony of Roy Junior Brown. Brown testified that he was in Moore County jail as a prisoner at the time defendant was placed in the jail. Brown asked defendant what he was charged with and defendant said that he was charged with a double homicide. Brown testified: “He said he murdered two people. He called one of their names Shelley (sic). He told me he killed them with a knife. He said he couldn't understand why they didn't give him his ring back, that they gave him his watch back, and it got broke off his arm, the band broke off, and I asked him where his ring was or something, I don't recall exactly what I asked him, but anyhow he said the ring turned up in one of the bodies.” The trial court then entered judgment imposing the death penalty for each of the crimes committed.
Was the trial court’s failure to allow defense counsel to view the crime scene fatal to the conviction?
Defendant's contention that denial of his motions to view the crime scene amounted to a denial of due process of law is persuasive. Here, the record discloses that the apartment occupied by the victims was secured and cordoned off by the Pinehurst Police Department from the time the bodies were discovered on 26 August 1980 through the time of defendant's trial. The defendant sought on several occasions to obtain access to the apartment in order to search for exculpatory evidence. The record does not disclose that the defendant would have been unwilling for his attorneys to be accompanied by police personnel so that no harm would be done to the crime scene. The defendant cogently presented the theory of his defense to the trial court. The State relied heavily on information gained from the crime scene for its case against the defendant. On these facts, it was a denial of fundamental fairness and due process for defendant to be denied, under police prosecutorial supervision, a limited inspection of the premises of the crime scene. It is emphasized, however, that this holding is limited to the particular facts of this case and is in no way to be construed to mean that police or prosecution have any obligation to preserve a crime scene for the benefit of a defendant's inspection. The crime scene here was preserved by the police for the several months from the time the bodies were found until the trial was conducted and rudimentary fairness would have allowed defendant to inspect these premises under these circumstances.
However, the trial court's error in denying defendant access to the crime scene was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt because of other overwhelming evidence of defendant's guilt. The court’s reading of the record here leaves no doubt that the trial court's error was harmless. This is so because evidence of this defendant's guilt was overwhelming. A ring identified as one previously worn by defendant was found in the body of Ms. Chalflinch. A bloody palm print lifted from the bedroom wall of the apartment was unquestionably identified as being that of the defendant. A bloody and broken knife blade similar to ones owned by defendant and used by him in his work was found at the crime scene. In addition to the blood at the crime scene, blood was located at the entrance of defendant's apartment and throughout the apartment. Defendant confessed to his cellmate, after being arrested, that he had murdered two people, one named Shelly, with a knife and that his ring had turned up in one of the bodies.