RALEIGH — A Moore County man will remain in prison after the state Supreme Court said the judge who revoked his probation could consider testimony based on hearsay.
Evidence that wouldn’t be admissible in a criminal trial is allowed in a probation revocation hearing at a judge’s discretion, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in a Thursday decision that will keep 22-year-old Bruce Tyler Murchison behind bars in the Scotland Correctional Institution outside Laurinburg.
The ruling reverses a 2013 N.C. Court of Appeals decision that would have released Murchison, who is serving a seven-year sentence, to resume his probation.
“The trial court was permitted under state statute to consider hearsay evidence in the revocation hearing,” Justice Mark Martin wrote in the court’s Thursday opinon. “Because we conclude that the trial court reasonably exercised its discretion in revoking defendant’s probation and activating his previously earned sentence, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.”
Moore County Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb in August 2012 revoked Murchison’s probation and activated a suspended sentence for 2011 assault with a deadly weapon and marijuana possession convictions. In the hearing, Webb allowed probation officer Leslie Tyree to testify that Murchson’s mother said he had broken into her house and held her and another woman at knifepoint.
Prosecutors also presented a computer printout showing that Murchison had been indicted on a first-degree burglary charge in neighboring Lee County. Webb revoked Murchison’s probation and activated his seven-year suspended sentence.
Murchison appealed, arguing that the state’s only evidence was hearsay, which Black’s Law Dictionary defines as “testimony given by a witness who relates not what he knows personally but what others have told him or what he has heard said by others.”
The N.C. Court of Appeals reversed Webb’s ruling last year and the state Supreme Court granted prosecutors’ petition for discretionary review.
In the court’s opinion, Martin cited a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case holding that convicted criminals on active probation have fewer due-process rights than a defendant who enjoys the constitutional presumption of innocence. Martin also cited numerous precedents from the state Supreme Court.
“All that is required in a hearing of this character is that the evidence be such as to reasonably satisfy the judge in the exercise of his sound discretion that the defendant has willfully violated a valid condition of probation,” Martin wrote, quoting the N.C. Supreme Court’s 1967 opinion in State v. Hewett.
A three-judge appellate panel found that Webb abused his discretion in admitting hearsay evidence and using it as justification to revoke Murchison’s probation. The high court struck down that assessment in its Thursday reversal.
“The state argues that because the formal rules of evidence do not apply in probation revocation proceedings, the Court of Appeals erred in finding abuse of discretion,” Martin wrote. “We agree.”
Supreme Court justices found Webb’s conclusion that Murchison posed a danger to the public to be reasonable.
“Given the statements of defendant’s mother, the document indicating defendant had been indicted for first-degree burglary, defendant’s demonstrated propensity for violence and Officer Tyree’s concern that defendant would kill somebody if allowed to remain on probation, we cannot say that the trial court abused its discretion in revoking defendant’s probation and activating his suspended sentence,” Martin wrote.”
State Division of Adult Correction records show Murchison was transferred from Columbus Correctional Institution to the state prison near Laurinburg on Tuesday, two days before the Supreme Court handed down its ruling.
Murchison has been cited for three infractions during his stay in prison — one each for unauthorized leave, profane language and fighting. His projected release date is March 30, 2017.
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