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A clerical error isn’t enough for a new trial in a Nash County drunken driving death, according to a recent state appeals court ruling.
Antonio Raynal Hunter Gray, 38, of Rocky Mount, is serving 30 years in prison on convictions of second-degree murder, two counts each of felony hit-and-run and felony inflicting serious injury by vehicle and one count each of felony death by vehicle, driving while intoxicated, driving while license revoked and reckless driving.
Assistant Appellate Defender Jillian Katz tried to get Gray’s May 2019 jury convictions overturned. The N.C. Court of Appeals heard the case June 10 and released its ruling in late July.
“We hold that the defendant received a trial free of error,” Judge John Arrowood wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
The case began in March 2017 with an Infiniti headed northbound on Interstate 95 in Nash County. At high speed, the Infiniti began weaving through traffic and hit the rear bumper of another vehicle, causing it to flip several times. A passenger in the vehicle died. The victim’s identity isn’t included in the appeals court ruling and couldn’t be confirmed in time for this story.
A civilian motorist followed the Infiniti, finding the car had crashed into a guardrail a short distance up the interstate. The civilian called 911. Two men stood by the Infiniti, but one man grabbed something from the glovebox and ran away. The other man stayed with the vehicle, according to court documents.
N.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Fred Demuth soon arrived at the scene. Demuth observed the remaining man — later identified as Gray — appeared to be barely able to stand, leaned against the car for stability and couldn’t walk without assistance. Demuth noticed a strong odor of alcohol, according to court records.
EMS workers checked Gray, but determined he didn’t need medical treatment.
Demuth charged Gray with driving while impaired and drove him to the Nashville Police Department for further investigation. Demuth had to help Gray into the interview room at the police station.
Demuth read Gray his Miranda warning. Gray wrote, signed and dated a statement in his own handwriting on a piece of notebook paper that reads, “I was the driver of the car tonights fulling responsible of all acting this that happen tonight I am Tony Gray Jr. for all acting that happen tonight.”
Gray wouldn’t take a breath alcohol test, so Demuth a obtained a search warrant for a sample of Gray’s blood, which revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.19, more than twice the legal limit to drive in North Carolina.
Gray’s trial lawyer tried unsuccessfully to suppress Gray’s previous DWI history. Gray has been convicted of DWI in 2004 and 2008. He has a long criminal conviction history dating back to 1999 and including robbery with a dangerous weapon, according to the N.C. Department of Public Safety.
At the time of the fatal wreck, Gray had pending court dates for driving while license revoked and DWI charges stemming from alleged June 2016 incidents.
Jurors deliberated for two hours in Gray’s trial before sending Superior Court Judge J. Carlton Cole a note indicating the jury was 11-1 in favor of conviction with the holdout juror reluctant to convict without eyewitness testimony that Gray drove the Infiniti when it struck the other vehicle.
Cole responded to the note by repeating his prior instructions on circumstantial evidence. The jury came back with a guilty verdict.
On appeal, Katz argued that the trial court made several mistakes, including denying his motion to suppress the statement made in police custody; re-instructing the jury on circumstantial evidence; and sentencing for second-degree murder by assigning Gray an extra point for being on probation at the time of the offense.
The Court of Appeals ruled that intoxication doesn’t render a confession inadmissible, especially since Gray wrote the statement in his own hand and due to previous arrests was familiar with law enforcement procedures.
“We conclude that the evidence supports the district court’s finding that Gray drove the vehicle that caused the deadly collision. Critically, Gray provided an oral and signed confession to the police — after he was informed of his Miranda rights — admitting that he was the driver and that he was responsible for the accident,” Arrowood wrote.
As far as the judge’s re-instructing the jury, the court ruled that a trial judge has no right to coerce a verdict, but can serve as a catalyst for further deliberations.
And the appellate panel found that the state did fail to notify Gray’s trial lawyer of intent to add a sentencing point to Gray’s record.
“However, as defendant acknowledges in his reply brief, this error was harmless because it did not enhance his prior record level. He nonetheless requests remand of his second-degree murder judgment for the limited purpose of fixing this clerical error. For the foregoing reasons, we find no error in defendant’s trial and remand for the limited purpose of fixing the aforementioned clerical error in the judgment sentencing defendant upon his second-degree murder conviction,” Arrowood wrote.
At the time of the 2017 crash, Gray was on federal supervised release for a crack cocaine distribution conviction. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina revoked his probation. Gray argued against the revocation in a May 2018 appeal to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The 4th Circuit ruled that the federal district court needed only to find a supervised release violation by a preponderance of the evidence.