Written by attorney Bill Powers

Corpus Delicti - TREXLER - North Carolina DWI "Naked Confession" Law Discussion #1

Page 414

334 S.E.2d 414

77 N.C.App. 11

STATE of North Carolina v. Richard Lewis TREXLER.

No. 8428SC1346.

Court of Appeals of North Carolina.

Oct. 1, 1985.

Atty. Gen. Lacy H. Thornburg by Asst. Atty. General W. Dale Talbert, Dept. of Justice, Raleigh, for the State.

Roberts, Cogburn, McClure & Williams by Max O. Cogburn and Isaac N. Northup, Jr., Asheville, for defendant-appellant.

WEBB, Judge.

The defendant assigns error to the denial of his motion to dismiss. We hold, pursuant to State v. Brown, 308 N.C. 181, 301 S.E.2d 89 (1983), that we are bound to sustain this assignment of error. In Brown our Supreme Court reversed a conviction for unlawful burning of personal property. The evidence in that case showed that a house trailer owned by Cindy Blackman was destroyed by fire. Cindy Blackman had been out of town for two weeks when the fire occurred. Certain items of her clothes, which she testified were in the trailer when she left, were found in the defendant's room. The defendant signed a confession in which he said, "I, Ricky Brown, burnt down a trailer last night at Sid Jones Trailer Park belonging to Cindy." Our Supreme Court held this was not sufficient evidence to support a conviction. It held that in order to prove the corpus delicti which would make the confession admissible the State must first prove that a crime had been committed. It said, "However, the State's evidence was insufficient to show the fire had a criminal origin. In fact it is just as reasonable to assume from the State's evidence that the fire was [77 N.C.App. 13] the result of a negligent act or an accident." Id. at 183-184, 301 S.E.2d at 90. Without the confession there was not sufficient evidence to convict Brown.

In this case the evidence without the defendant's statement is that Mr. Hall heard a loud noise, that he saw a vehicle which had been wrecked on the highway in front of his home, and that he saw the defendant who was under the influence of an intoxicating beverage in the area. We do not believe under Brown that proof that there was an accident and an intoxicated person later came to the scene proves in this case the crime that someone had been driving while impaired. Without proof of the corpus delicti the statement of the defendant to Mr. Robinson should not have been admitted. There was not sufficient evidence to convict the defendant.

We make a few additional comments in the hope that our Supreme Court will reconsider its position and overrule Brown. The author of this opinion was also the author of the opinion in Brown when it was in this Court. The panel of this Court which rendered the decision was so certain we were following a well enunciated rule that we affirmed the conviction without a published opinion. We did not understand the rule as to proof of corpus delicti in order to make a confession admissible as it was written in Brown.

We followed a rule which we felt was well established in the following cases. State v. Green, 295 N.C. 244, 244 S.E.2d 369 (1978); State v. Thompson, 287 N.C. 303, 214 S.E.2d 742 (1975), death sentence vacated, 428 U.S. 908, 96 S.Ct. 3215, 49 L.Ed.2d 1213 (1976); State v. Jenerett, 281 N.C. 81, 187 S.E.2d 735 (1972); and State v. Whittemore, 255 N.C. 583, 122 S.E.2d 396 (1961). This rule was stated by Chief Justice Branch in Thompson as follows:

Defendant correctly contends that his conviction cannot be sustained upon a naked extrajudicial confession. However, it is equally well settled that if the State offers into evidence sufficient extrinsic corroborative circumstances as will, when taken in connection with an accused's confession, show that the crime was committed and that the accused

Page 416

was the perpetrator, the case should be submitted to the jury.

287 N.C. at 324, 214 S.E.2d at 755. The defendant in Thompson had been convicted of murder. The evidence which Chief Justice [77 N.C.App. 14] Branch held corroborated the defendant's confession was that the defendant was found in an automobile similar to the one belonging to the deceased; the defendant had a large sum of money; the defendant had an opportunity to steal the pistol which was shown to have fired the fatal bullets; the defendant had in his possession a pistol which was the same color as the one which fired the bullets into deceased's body; and his girlfriend saw some empty shells in the possession of the defendant. We do not believe this evidence which was relied on to establish the corpus delicti proves a murder had been committed.

In Whittemore a defendant was tried for a crime against nature and carnal knowledge of a virtuous girl. A penetration is necessary for a person to be convicted of either crime. The State's witness did not testify that there was a penetration so that there was not proof that a crime had been committed. Our Supreme Court said that this was not enough to convict the defendant of either crime. The defendant confessed, however, and the Court held that the testimony of the State's witness and the confession were enough to sustain the conviction. We believe Whittemore contains a square holding that it is not necessary to prove a crime has been committed in order to make the confession admissible. Justice Rodman, writing for the Court said:

A conviction cannot be had on the extrajudicial confession of the defendant, unless corroborated by proof aliunde of the corpus delicti. Full, direct, and positive evidence, however, of the corpus delicti is not indispensable. A confession will be sufficient if there be such extrinsic corroborative circumstances, as will, when taken in connection with the confession, establish the prisoner's guilt in the minds of the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.


Suffice it to say that the evidence offered by the State was subject to an explanation and interpretation by defendant himself.... Circumstances capable of an innocent construction may be interpreted in the light of defendant's admissions, and the fact under investigation be thus given a criminal aspect.

255 N.C. at 589, 122 S.E.2d at 401.

[77 N.C.App. 15] Justice Dan Moore in Jenerett quoted Whittemore with approval. In State v. Macon, 6 N.C.App. 245, 170 S.E.2d 144 (1969) the defendant was convicted of second degree murder. The State's evidence showed that the skeleton of the victim was found with a bullet hole through her skull. This evidence was held to be sufficient proof of the corpus delicti to make the defendant's confession admissible. Our Supreme Court affirmed this holding at 276 N.C. 466, 173 S.E.2d 286 (1970). We believe that the fact that there was a bullet hole through the victim's skull did not prove she was murdered. It could have been just as easily inferred that it was an accident or that it was a suicide. We believe Macon contains a square holding that it is not necessary to prove a crime has been committed in order to make a confession admissible. Judge Parker, writing for this Court in Macon, said:

To establish a prima facie showing of the corpus delicti the prosecution need not eliminate all inferences tending to show a non-criminal cause of death. "Rather, a foundation (for the

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