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Trigger man in 2017 shooting will get a new trial due to constitutional violation

Changing juror after deliberations had begun results in overturned conviction

The state’s second-highest court has overturned the convictions of a Burlington man who was convicted in 2022 of shooting into an occupied vehicle, a felony, and misdemeanor assault by pointing a gun, stemming from a traffic incident in Burlington in 2017.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has remanded the case for Jalen O. Watlington, 27, black, male, to Alamance County for a new trial due to an apparent violation of his constitutional rights that occurred during his trial in Alamance County in April 2022, by the seating of an alternate juror on the second day of the jury’s deliberations.

Jalen O. Watlington

A three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals issued an opinion Tuesday concluding that, while Watlington failed to object during his trial in Alamance County, the substitution of an alternate juror – after deliberations had begun – violated his right to a “properly constituted jury” under the N.C. Constitution by allowing the alternate juror to be seated after deliberations had started.

That opinion falls in line with an earlier ruling issued by the Appeals Court just four months earlier, in February 2024, according to a “majority opinion” authored by judge Donna Stroud.  Citing a pending request for a review (i.e. writ of certiorari) by the N.C. Supreme Court in a capital murder case (State v. Chambers), Stroud concluded that Watlington “must receive a new trial.”

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In April 2022, a jury convicted Watlington, then 25, of one count of discharging a weapon into an occupied vehicle and one count of assaulting a gun at the conclusion of his trial in Alamance County superior court.  Alamance County senior resident superior court judge Tom Lambeth, Jr. presided over Watlington’s trial here, according to the case background.

 

Watlington was sentenced to a prison term of approximately six to eight years, to run concurrently with a separate prison term of six to eight years for a September 2018 conviction in Pitt County of felony assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or inflict serious injury, according to Watlington’s case files from the state Department of Corrections.  [He was initially charged with first-degree murder in the Pitt County case, according to news stories published at the time by multiple media outlets.]

For her part, Stroud wrote in her opinion, issued Tuesday, that the court had “no choice but to vacate” Watlington’s convictions in the Alamance County case and return the case to Alamance County for a new trial on all charges.

Undisputed in the case background and subsequent opinions were the facts that led to Watlington’s convictions in Alamance County superior court in 2022.

“On November 30, 2017, Mr. Brandon Miles and Ms. Rachsell Carr were driving in a Chevrolet,” Stroud noted.  “[Watlington] was driving a Toyota and backed into the Chevrolet’s line of travel, causing Mr. Miles to swerve out of the way to avoid a collision.  Immediately after this near collision, at a stop light, [Watlington and his passenger] both pulled out guns.”

“The vehicles then separated, driving onto different streets, but Mr. Miles eventually turned around to get [Watlington’s] tag number,” Stroud wrote, recounting the case background.  “When Mr. Miles found the Toyota, [Watlington] and his passenger were both waiting at a stop sign with their guns displayed.  Shots were fired at Mr. Miles and Ms. Carr, who ducked.”

One of the jurors (identified in the case background as “Juror No. 10”) failed to show up to court on the second day of deliberations.  After being contacted by a court clerk, Juror No. 10 informed the clerk that she had gone to an emergency room for a foot injury and had been ordered to stay off the foot; that juror was excused and an alternate was seated, according to the case background.

In keeping with an amendment to state law that took effect in October 2021, Lambeth instructed the jury “to begin deliberations anew” and to “disregard entirely any deliberations taking place” before the alternate juror was seated, according to the case background that Stroud cited in her 14-page opinion for the Appeals Court.

 

Two appellate judges concur but issue separate opinions

Meanwhile, Appeals Court judges John Arrowood and Jefferson Griffin concurred with Stroud’s opinion but issued their own, separate opinions.

Arrowood wrote that he concurred “in result only,” citing a 1989 precedent that established, “Where a panel of the Court of Appeals has decided the same issue, albeit in a different case, a subsequent panel of the same court is bound by that precedent, unless it has been overturned by a higher court.”

Judge Jefferson Griffin also acknowledged the earlier precedent set in State v. Chambers – a ruling issued on February 20 of this year, which established that the convictions in that case, against a defendant named Eric Ramond Chambers, had violated his constitutional right to a “properly constituted jury – was binding on the Appeals Court ruling in Watlington’s case.

“I too am bound by the Court’s prior decision in Chambers and therefore agree with the result of the lead opinion here,” Griffin wrote.  “Nonetheless, I write separately as I disagree with the lead opinion’s disparaging tone and find its interpretation of the Court’s opinion in Chambers to be at the very least unclear, if not fundamentally misleading.”

A separate analysis by the UNC School of Government of the purported constitutional violation in Chambers’ case asserted that the Appeals Court was bound by a 1997 N.C. Supreme Court ruling in 1997, which established that the “substitution of an alternate juror in a capital [death penalty] sentencing proceeding after deliberations began was a structural error.”

In the Chambers ruling, the Court of Appeals noted that the N.C. Constitution explicitly states, “No person shall be convicted of any crime but by the unanimous verdict of a jury in open court,” which the state Supreme Court has interpreted as requiring a jury composed of 12 jurors, Shea Denning wrote in her analysis for the School of Government.

 

Prior charges against Watlington

In addition to the charges surrounding the road rage incident in November 2017, Burlington police had also previously charged Watlington with felony hit-and-run in January 2017 for allegedly hitting a man with his car near the intersection of Chapel Hill Road and Tucker Street and then fleeing the scene, according to multiple news stories published at the time.

However, Watlington’s court files give no indication that Watlington was ever indicted or convicted for hit-and-run in connection with the January 2017 case.

Watlington, then 21, also had been charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct on school property after he engaged in a large public disturbance – which his arrest warrant described as the “threat of a riot” – during a basketball game at Western High School in December 2017.  He had been living at 717 Windsor Street in Burlington, based on a warrant issued at the time by the Alamance County sheriff’s office.

That charge was later combined with other pending charges, including the one for felony hit-and-run, an Alamance County assistant district attorney said in a subsequent interview with The Alamance News.

As of press time, Watlington remained in custody at Scotland Correctional Institution, a high-security men’s prison in Laurinburg.

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