Woman Found Not Guilty of Speeding, DWI Using Rare Defense
Superior Court Judge John O. Craig III had an unusual session of Superior Court last week in Carthage.
Two criminal trials that came before him were rare, he said more than once from the bench.
In one trial, Christine Black admitted she was speeding. But her attorney, Eddie Meacham, relied on the extremely rare and difficult-to-prove "defense of necessity."
She said she had to drive almost 80 mph despite -having drunk too much wine and beer, because she was rushing her son to the emergency room and feared he might die on the way. Under a state law drawn from the ancient common law, a crime is "excused" if the criminal act is necessary to protect life or limb or health.
The jury wound up agreeing with Black, finding her not guilty
In the other case, Dana Scales insisted on acting as her own lawyer handling a jury trial of her appeal of a conviction in District Court for an altercation with two Pinehurst police officers. She wasn't as fortunate, with the jury convicting her.
One trial followed the other, each taking about a day to try.
Meacham and Assistant District Attorney David Bjorlin said they had never taken part in a case like the one against Black. Craig himself took note from the bench of the rarity and difficulty of a necessity defense.
Both sides agreed that Black had been speeding and driving while impaired as charged. A Pinehurst police officer had tracked Black at 79 mph in a 55-mph zone and measured her blood alcohol at .14, well above the .08 legal limit. Black cooperated with the officer and said she actually had been drinking and speeding, according to the testimony.
"There is no disagreement as to what happened," Bjorlin told the jury in the state's opening argument. "In February 2008, Sgt. Tina Sheppard, on N.C. 211 near Moore Regional Hospital, observed the defendant make an odd turn at high speed, 79 in a 45, jump out of her car at the emergency room door, leaving the car door open. Her breath tested .14, which is almost double the legal limit. The only question is whether her circumstances were mitigating or an actual defense."
He said the evidence would show Black had other choices that night, and that her offenses were not reasonable and necessary.
Black's 16-year-old son had been very ill the week before, Meacham told the jury. After a trip to the emergency room at the hospital, she had been advised to watch him and seek medical attention immediately if pain returned.
Everything was fine for several days, but late Tuesday night of the following week, after his mother had drunk a glass of wine preparing dinner and several beers while cleaning the kitchen and doing laundry, she saw her son bent over with pain and gasping for breath, Meacham said. Her son told her he could not breathe and that he thought he was dying.
Black put him in the car and sped to the hospital, according to the testimony. Once there, she struggled into the ER with him, leaving the motor running, both doors open and her pocketbook in the car.
In her testimony, Sheppard backed up everything Black said on the stand. She said she saw Black help her son get into the emergency room and the car left running with its doors open. She said that after Black returned to move the vehicle, she detected the smell of alcohol. The officer performed the breath test and arrested Black.
In his closing arguments, Bjorlin asked why Black could not have called 911 or asked her mother, who lived virtually next door, to drive the boy to the hospital. The state argued that Black's actions were illegal, potentially threatened other lives and were not necessary.
Meacham posted a card on a stand in front of the jury box containing the words from a case ruling describing the necessity defense: "A person is excused from criminal liability if he acts under a duress of circumstances to protect life or limb or health in a reasonable manner and with no other acceptable choice."
That is exactly what happened here, Meacham told the jury.
"We have no issue with the officer," he said. "She did exactly what she was supposed to do. If we had a law that did not accept necessity, you would not want to be part of that society. Was there any other acceptable choice? There is only one true verdict."
In her testimony, Black told of having to call 911 five months earlier to get help for her elderly grandfather, who had fallen and was bleeding from the mouth and unconscious. It took EMS 35 minutes to arrive, she told the jury.
By car, she had brought her son to the hospital in "four, maybe five minutes," she testified.
Meacham, laying aside notes he had prepared earlier, looked at the jurors and asked them to rely on their common sense and life experience.
"You can just feel she is not guilty," Meacham said. "You have a mother taking care of her baby. You have an immediate response. ... We have a life-or-death situation. Yes, she could call 911, or dial a family member. She could watch her son die while she waited. Is a DWI conviction more important to the state of North Carolina than the death of a child? That is as urgent as it gets."
After the jury reached its verdicts, Craig complimented Bjorlin and Meacham on the way they represented both sides in such an unusual case.
"I think both of you did a fine job with a novel and interesting question," Craig said.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story