Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Appeals Court splits over whether Burlington man convicted of murder in fatal crash should get a new trial

The North Carolina Court of Appeals issued a split opinion this week that upheld the second-degree murder conviction of a Burlington man who was involved in a car crash that killed another driver.

An Alamance County jury convicted William Lee Scott, now 42, white male, of second-degree murder at the conclusion of his trial in 2018. Scott had been living at 4501 Springbrook Drive in Burlington when the fatal crash occurred in west Burlington in June 2013, according to his Alamance County court file.

A three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that results from the blood test performed on Scott, showing he had been drunk when the crash occurred, should not have been presented to jurors during his trial in Alamance County superior court. 

Scott was never charged with driving while impaired, based on the factual background cited in an opinion issued by the Court of Appeals Tuesday. 

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However, the Appeals Court split 2-1 on whether the error entitles Scott to a new trial.  The two-judge majority concluded that evidence that Scott had been driving recklessly, which was sufficient to convict him of second-degree murder.

He had been driving a Jeep at a high rate of speed when he collided with a Chevy Impala, driven by Veocia Warren, 62, black female, of 664 Manning Avenue, Elon, near the intersection of University and Manning Drive in west Burlington around 2:44 p.m. on June 21, 2013, according to the Alamance County court file.  Warren was pronounced dead at the scene; Scott was taken to Cone Hospital for treatment and released, according to the factual background outlined in the Appeals Court opinion.

Elon police lieutenant Jim Giannotti investigated the crash and determined that Warren had been trying to make a left-hand turn and had entered Scott’s “path of travel,” when the two vehicles collided, the factual background states.  An accident reconstruction unit from the State Highway Patrol that responded to the crash examined data from the Jeep’s computer and determined that Scott had been traveling at 78 miles an hour – in a 45-mile-an-hour zone – five seconds before the crash and at 73 miles an hour at the point of impact.

Scott was subsequently indicted in September 2013 for second-degree murder, felony death by vehicle, and misdemeanor death by vehicle, though the charge of death by vehicle was dismissed, according to the Alamance County court file.  He was sentenced to 10 to 13 years in prison at the conclusion of his trial in Alamance County in July 2018.

Scott appealed a ruling by Wake County visiting superior court judge Paul Ridgeway, who presided over the trial in Alamance County, to allow results from blood that had been drawn at Cone Hospital on the day of the accident to be admitted during his trial.  A week later, Scott’s blood sample was sent to the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) for analysis, according to the factual background.  The SBI’s analysis revealed Scott had a blood alcohol concentration of .22, which is nearly three times the legal limit of .08, when he collided with the Impala, killing Warren.

Scott’s attorney, David B. Smith of Greensboro, had filed a pretrial motion to suppress the results from the blood test, which he argued had violated his client’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, as well as a state law that provides for confidentiality of doctor/patient communications and patient medical records.  Smith also argued that there had been no probable cause to believe that Scott had been driving while impaired, according to the Alamance County court file.

“No odor of alcohol, acetone, or drugs were noticed by the first EMS responder, who had face-to-face contact with Mr. Scott [and he did] not detect the odor of alcohol or drugs,” nor did an Elon police lieutenant who investigated the crash, Smith argued in his motion to suppress the results from the blood test.

On appeal, assistant state attorney general Kathryne E. Hathcock contended that Ridgeway’s ruling had been proper under a different portion of state law that that allows medical information about a person who is involved in a crash to be disclosed to law enforcement officers, providing they have a search warrant or court order. 

In Scott’s case, Alamance County district court judge Kathryn “Katie” Overby had signed an affidavit and order on June 26, 2013, requiring the results from the blood test  performed on Scott to be furnished to Giannotti, according to the Alamance County court file.

While Appeals Court judge John M. Tyson noted that, in denying Scott’s motion to suppress the blood test results, Ridgeway had concluded that Overby’s order “would fail” under the state law that provides for confidentiality of doctor/patient communications and patient medical records, neither he nor judge Wanda Bryant, who concurred, found any prejudicial error that would entitle Scott to a new trial.

“The first and only indication of [Scott’s] intoxication were results of tests on blood samples taken from the hospital and tested over a week later at the SBI laboratory,” Tyson wrote in his opinion for the majority, issued Tuesday. 

Appellate judge Chris Brook agreed with the court majority that results from the blood test should not have been admitted during Scott’s trial in Alamance County superior court.

All three Appeals Court judges concluded that a “theory of intoxication” was insufficient to prove malice, one of the elements needed to support a conviction of second-degree murder.

However, in his dissenting opinion, Brook determined that Ridgeway’s decision to allow the test results to be admitted into evidence – and jurors to hear Scott’s blood alcohol level – constituted a prejudicial error that “was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt” and therefore entitled him to a new trial.

The Appeals Court rejected Scott’s argument that Ridgeway had erred in allowing jurors to hear evidence of his prior convictions of DWI and several lesser offenses during his trial in Alamance County.

The absence of a unanimous ruling by the Court of Appeals gives Scott the right to file an appeal with the state Supreme Court. Scott is currently incarcerated at Sampson Correctional Institution in Clinton, according to the state Department of Corrections.

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