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Expert testimony sufficient to support conviction in undercover drug bust, Appeals Court rules

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The North Carolina Court of Appeals has upheld the convictions of a former Liberty man who was convicted in Alamance County superior court in 2015 of being an habitual felon and four felony drug charges stemming from an undercover investigation by the Alamance County sheriff’s office.

Alfonza Dawnta Coltrane, 38, black male, formerly of 7922 County Line Road in Liberty, was convicted of being an habitual felon and of four related felony drug charges, at the conclusion of his trial in Alamance County superior court on October 28, 2015, the case background states.

Alfonza Dawnta Coltrane

The Alamance County sheriff’s department had arranged two “controlled buys,” in which then-deputy Krystal Neil (now a corporal with the department) posed as an undercover buyer to purchase what were believed to be illegal drugs from Coltrane in December 2011. A forensic chemist with the state crime lab later identified the “substances,” as they are termed throughout the case background, based on testimony given during Coltrane’s trial in Alamance County superior court.

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At the conclusion of his trial, an Alamance County jury convicted Coltrane of all five counts he had been charged with in December 2011: obtaining the status of being an habitual felon; two counts of possession with intent to sell and deliver a Schedule II controlled substance; and two counts of selling a Schedule II controlled substance, all of which are classified as felonies, according to the case background.

In an opinion issued Tuesday, a three-judge panel for the Appeals Court unanimously upheld Coltrane’s convictions.

Coltrane unsuccessfully argued on appeal that the judge who presided over his trial in Alamance County, Alan Baddour, resident superior court judge for the judicial district that includes Orange and Chatham counties, had erred in allowing a forensic chemist from the state crime lab to refer to the substances that Neil had purchased during the investigation as ‘drugs,’ ‘narcotics,’ ‘cocaine,’ and/or ‘crack cocaine,’” the case background states.

Coltrane contended that the forensic chemist, Meredith Lisle, failed to testify during his trial in 2015 about the methodology and analyses she had used to determine the chemical makeup of the substances purchased in the investigation. A 2010 ruling by the N.C. Supreme Court established that “some form of scientifically valid chemical analysis” is required to establish the identity of a controlled substance beyond a reasonable doubt, and that testimony based on mere visual observations are insufficient to support a conviction.

Lisle testified about how a “microcrystalline test” and a “conforming test” using an infrared spectrometer had revealed that the substances purchased from Coltrane were positive for “cocaine base,” i.e., crack, according to the case background. Lisle also testified that “the reports of the chemical analyses did not amount to the kind of ‘baseless speculation’ equivalent to the testimony of a layperson.”

Coltrane neither objected to Lisle’s testimony – specifically, her references to the substances as “drugs” and “cocaine” – at his trial. Nor had he followed the normal route of appeal, judge Jeff Carpenter noted in his opinion for the Court of Appeals.

The state’s second-highest court nonetheless agreed to review the record of Coltrane’s proceedings in Alamance County superior court, granting a writ of certiorari he filed in 2019, to determine whether any fundamental error may have occurred that was “so basic, so prejudicial, so lacking in its elements that justice cannot have been done,” as defined by a 1983 N.C. Supreme Court precedent that established the basis for “plain error,” based on case law cited in the opinion that the Appeals Court issued this week.

The Appeals Court agreed with Coltrane’s assertion that Baddour had failed to properly exercise his “gatekeeping function” – by not requiring Lisle to testify about the methods and analysis she used to identify the substances in Coltrane’s case – but stopped short of concluding that it had prejudiced the outcome of his trial in Alamance County.

Coltrane’s attorney not only failed to object to Lisle’s references to “drugs” and “cocaine,” he made the same references himself throughout the trial, Carpenter noted. (A transcript on file with the Appeals Court lists Graham attorney Julian Doby as having represented Coltrane for his trial in Alamance County.)

“The error does not amount to plain error,” Carpenter wrote. “Further, we cannot say the references by the state’s witnesses to the substances in question as ‘drugs,’ ‘cocaine,’ and the like served to prejudice the defendant at trial such that they amounted to plain error.”
Judges John Arrowood and Fred Gore concurred with Carpenter’s opinion for the Court of Appeals.

Attorney William D. Spence of Kinston represented Coltrane for his appeal.

Coltrane is currently incarcerated at Tabor Correctional Institution, a medium-custody prison for men in Columbus County, and is currently scheduled to be released in June 2022, according to the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

His previous convictions include: felony possession of a Schedule II controlled substance (Randolph County, 2016); felony possession with intent to sell and deliver a controlled substance (Guilford County, 2012); felony speeding to elude arrest and resisting an officer (Randolph County, 2006); possession of a firearm by a felon and felony speeding to elude arrest (Guilford County, 2004); and felony possession with intent to sell and deliver a controlled substance (Alamance County, 2002), as well as several misdemeanor convictions, according to DOC.

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