RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The North Carolina Court of Appeals on Tuesday ordered a new trial for a man convicted of killing four people in Columbus County, ruling that the man's defense attorney should have been able to dismiss a juror after the trial began.
The three-judge panel agreed unanimously in favor of Danny Lamont Thomas, who is serving life in prison without parole for the deaths of three people in a home and fourth during a robbery in 2005.
A juror in Thomas' 2011 trial told a court official during a break that she knew a state's witness from high school, the opinion said.
Outside the remaining jury's presence, Superior Court Judge Thomas Lock questioned the juror, who said she hadn't recognized the witness at first because her name had changed. The juror said they were acquaintances in high school and hadn't kept up since graduating in the early 1990s.
The juror testified she could remain fair and impartial, the opinion said. The prosecutor and Thomas' defense attorneys declined to ask questions, but the judge denied a defense request to excuse the juror from the case for proper cause or to allow Thomas to use pre-trial juror challenges that he hadn't exhausted.
Thomas appealed, and the appeals judges agreed that Lock erred by refusing to allow Thomas to use a remaining peremptory challenge, which lawyers usually use during jury selection. The judges disagreed with state attorneys who argued at appeal that the trial court didn't reopen juror examination because Thomas' attorneys didn't ask any questions when given the opportunity to do so.
"Once the trial court has reopened examination of a juror, it is not necessary for a party to ask questions simply to activate the right to use a remaining peremptory challenge," Court of Appeals Judge Linda McGee wrote in the opinion.
McGee acknowledged that the ability to dismiss a juror during a trial with such a challenge generates "possible troubling scenarios." A defense attorney's decision to dismiss multiple jurors could result in requiring a new trial, or a prosecutor could seek to dismiss a juror who may prevent a conviction, she wrote.
The state Supreme Court previously set the standards for using challenges during a trial based on standards in state law for challenging a juror after the juror is accepted but before the jury is impaneled, McGee said.
Attorney General Roy Cooper's office could ask the state Supreme Court to review Tuesday's case, but an appeal is not automatically granted because of the unanimous ruling.
Jurors in 2011 convicted Thomas of killing Dennis Inman; his wife, Regina; and her brother Anthony Martin at the Inmans' home near Chadbourn in November 2005. The jury also convicted him of killing Craig Williams in a robbery near Whiteville in September 2005. Thomas is also serving a life sentence for a Durham County murder earlier that year, according to records from the Department of Public Safety.