RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the murder conviction of a woman who fatally shot her lover in her bedroom, ruling Friday that the trial judge gave appropriate instructions to the jury about the legal limits for deadly force inside a home.
Five of the seven justices agreed to overturn a unanimous appellate decision that had ordered a new trial for Wendy Dawn Lamb Hicks, who was convicted in the death of Caleb Adams. Evidence shows he was shot twice in the back in her bedroom doorway.
The majority's primary opinion said it was proper, based on evidence, for the jury to be instructed that Hicks could not cite self-defense and the protection of one's home to justify deadly force if the jury could infer that she was acting as the aggressor, even if she did not instigate the confrontation.
Adams was married to someone else and began a relationship with Hicks after they met at work in 2015.
The relationship was tumultuous and strained, marked by the use of drugs and efforts by Hicks to reveal the relationship to Adams' wife, possibly through texts and sexually explicit photos, according to the opinion written by Associate Justice Anita Earls.
Adams arrived at Hicks' Randolph County home on the morning of June 13, 2017 — even though she had warned him not to come. Evidence shows that within minutes, Hicks called 911 and said she had shot Adams. He died at the scene.
Her teenage daughter and a friend were in another room, so “Hicks is the only living eyewitness to what occurred in the bedroom where Mr. Adams was shot," Earls wrote.
The jury convicted Hicks, now 44, of second-degree murder in 2019 and she was sentenced to a prison term of 15 to 19 years.
The Court of Appeals found that trial Judge Bradford Long had erred by giving unsupported jury instructions on the aggressor doctrine. But Earls wrote that inconsistencies between Hicks' testimony and prior accounts and other evidence challenged her version of events and warranted that instruction.
Hicks described a violent attack and said she shot Adams while trying to avoid his blows, but she exhibited no obvious injuries and the prosecution’s evidence shows he was shot in the back from at least 6 inches (15 centimeters) away, the opinion said.
“Drawing all inferences in the state’s favor, a jury examining the evidence could reasonably infer that Ms. Hicks acted as the aggressor in her confrontation with Mr. Adams,” Earls wrote. “Each of those contradictions in the evidence could have given a jury pause," prompting them to doubt Hicks' account, she added.
In a dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Tamara Barringer focused largely on Hicks' testimony and declared that the judge shouldn't have given the “aggressor doctrine” instruction.
Hicks said in court that Adams took her gun from a nightstand and pointed it at her, demanding her phone. Then, Hicks said, he threw the gun and the phone onto her bed, after which she took the gun and phone. She testified that Adams blocked her way and physically attacked her when she tried to leave the bedroom.
Hicks “retained the right to protect herself and the other people in her home, even when Mr. Adams turned to face away from her,” Barringer wrote.
Squaring the self-defense and aggressor provisions in North Carolina statutes and case law raises "complicated and thorny legal issues that call out for clarity,” Associate Justice Richard Dietz wrote in a separate opinion backing the prevailing result.
But these issues were not sufficiently addressed by the legal parties in the case, Dietz said and “as a result, not only does the law suffer, but so does Hicks.”
__ This story has been updated to correct the maximum prison sentence to 19 years, not 18 years.