Jurors Can't Be Replaced Once Deliberations Begin, North Carolina Appeals Court Rules

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A man sentenced to life in prison without parole for a fatal shooting in a Raleigh motel room was awarded a new trial on Tuesday by the state Court of Appeals because of a jury shakeup after deliberations began.

A panel of the intermediate-level appeals court unanimously agreed that Eric Ramond Chambers' right to a “properly constituted jury” under the state constitution was violated.

Chambers was convicted of first-degree murder and a serious assault charge for the 2018 shooting that led to the death of Davelle McMoore and wounding of Terri Blossom.

After jury deliberations in Chambers' 2022 trial began, a juror told Superior Court Judge Rebecca Holt that he could not return the next day due to a scheduled doctor's appointment, according to Tuesday's opinion.

Holt replaced the juror with an alternate and told the jury to begin its deliberations anew. Chambers, who was representing himself in the trial, was not in the courtroom when the substitution occurred.

The state constitution says, with some possible exceptions, no one can be convicted of any crime “but by the unanimous verdict of a jury in open court." And the state Supreme Court has ruled that means juror substitution can't occur after deliberations have started, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Chris Dillon wrote in the opinion.

Dillon said that tenet remains intact even with a 2021 law from the General Assembly that says an alternate can be used for deliberations if an original juror can't continue, provided the jury is told to start their deliberations anew.

An attorney for the state defending the conviction said the juror argument couldn't be pursued by Chambers because he failed to object to the substitution at trial. And the 2021 law comported with the state constitution in that it required a “jury of specifically twelve, operating from the same facts and law, unanimously determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence,” Assistant Attorney General Caden Hayes wrote.

But Chambers' court-appointed appellate attorneys wrote in a court brief that the “legislature cannot override a constitutional provision with a statute.”

“Where a statute conflicts with our state constitution, we must follow our state constitution,” Dillon wrote in the opinion, joined by Judges Hunter Murphy and Jeff Carpenter. And such an error involving a jury trial can't be set aside just because Chambers failed to object at the time, Dillon added.

State prosecutors could ask the state Supreme Court to consider Tuesday's ruling.