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Plain error is an error which was so fundamental as to amount to a miscarriage of justice or which probably resulted in the jury reaching a different verdict than it otherwise would have reached. To prevail under a plain error analysis, a defendant must establish not only that the trial court committed error, but that absent the error, the jury probably would have reached a different
Defendant Stephen Clay Jones Sr. and Frances Riggs Jones, his wife, were married for 23 years. His wife kept four guns after an assailant attacked her at home. One day, according to defendant, a loud bang woke him up and found a gun lying next to his face and his wife was bleeding. He then called 911 and told the operator he had just shot his wife and she needed an ambulance. He said that he did not remember shooting his wife and if he did so, he did not do it deliberately. Police officers then came after that call and found the victim’s body on the bed. Forensic residue tests on the couple’s hands were inconclusive as to whether either had recently fired a gun. An autopsy revealed that the bullet passed through the victim’s brain that instantly killed her. The parties presented conflicting testimony at trial as to the nature of the couple's marital relationship. Plaintiff’s witness testified that defendant made several phone calls to the victim’s workplace during the six weeks before her death. Others testified that their conversations with the victim revealed that she had jealous husband. Defendant revealed a long-time extra-marital affair but stated that the victim forgave him. He also testified that he did not call his wife’s workplace during the period before the victim died. He likewise presented telephone records which showed that a former employee at his wife's workplace made numerous calls to the mill and to their residence during the period in question. But the former employee himself did not testify. Their 17-year-old son also testified that he never saw his parents argue or fight. Defendant’s physician testified that after the wife’s death, he diagnosed defendant as suffering from REM Sleep Disorder-a condition where normal muscle relaxation failed during the dream stage of sleep and the sleeper acts out his dreams. He testified that a person with this condition could fire a gun while asleep, especially if the gun was easily accessible. At the close of all evidence, the trial court instructed the jury on the charges of first-degree murder, second degree murder, and involuntary manslaughter. The court also instructed the jury about the affirmative defense of unconsciousness or automatism. The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to imprisonment for life without parole. Defendant appealed challenging the fairness of his trial.
Did the court correctly find defendant guilty of first-degree murder?
The court affirmed the judgment since there was no prejudicial error in defendant's conviction. The court held that the trial court did not err by admitting hearsay evidence concerning defendant’s alleged jealousy because the statements were admissible under N.C. R. Evid. 803(3) since they tended to show the victim's state of mind, were relevant under N.C. R. Evid. 403 since they indicated her relationship with defendant, and were admissible as rebuttal testimony. The court likewise held that although certain phone call evidence was inadmissible under N.C. R. Evid. 901, defendant failed to object. Hence, the admission of the evidence was not plain error. Lastly, the trial court properly instructed the jury that defendant had the burden of proof for the affirmative defense of unconsciousness or automatism.