Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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E.g., 11/27/2021
E.g., 11/27/2021

A few days after the defendant was evicted from her apartment, the defendant, along with one identified companion and one unidentified companion, broke into her landlord’s home. The defendant was armed with a machete and both companions were armed with a hammer. When the three entered the landlord’s bedroom, the defendant immediately announced to the landlord that she was there to kill him. The defendant threw the machete at the landlord, and the companions proceeded to beat him and strike him in the head with the machete and the hammer. The defendant then began to attack the landlord’s girlfriend and baby with the machete. The girlfriend was able to escape with the baby and called 911. At trial, the defendant was found guilty of attempted first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury. 

On appeal, the Court of Appeals, in a divided opinion, concluded that the trial court plainly erred by instructing the jury on the conspiracy to commit first-degree murder charge. The majority reasoned that the indictment named only the identified companion as the defendant’s co-conspirator, and the evidence presented at trial supported a finding that the defendant conspired with both an identified and an unidentified companion, but the jury instructions instructed that a conspiracy could be found if “the defendant and at least one other person entered into an agreement.” Slip op. at ¶ 7. Accordingly, the majority held that the defendant’s fundamental right to be informed of the accusations against her was violated.

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals, holding that the defendant failed to demonstrate prejudice because the State presented overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence of defendant’s guilt at trial, and the Court of Appeals erred by failing to perform the required prejudice analysis required for plain error review. The Court concluded that given the overwhelming evidence of a conspiracy between the defendant and the identified companion to kill the landlord, there was not a reasonable probability that the jury would have returned a different verdict had the companion been identified in the jury instructions as the defendant’s co-conspirator rather than a mere instruction that an agreement must be reached with at least one other person.

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision below, 259 N.C. App. 127 (2018), the court reversed the Court of Appeals and held that appellate counsel was not ineffective for failing to cite a particular line of cases because the facts of this case were distinguishable from those in the line of cases the Court of Appeals would have had appellate counsel cite.  The Court of Appeals had held that appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to make the argument under State v. Pakulski, 319 N.C. 562 (1987) that a trial court commits plain error when it instructs a jury on disjunctive theories of a crime, one of which is erroneous, and it cannot be discerned from the record the theory upon which the jury relied.  Noting that its opinion in Pakulski “lacks clarity” with respect to the standard of review applied there, the court explained that Pakulski applied the harmless error rather than plain error standard, as evidenced by subsequent precedent.  Because the defendant in this case did not object to the trial court’s jury instructions, the court explained that Pakulski “would have had little precedential value in the instant case, and appellate counsel’s failure to cite it was not objectively unreasonable.”  The court went on to explain that the arguments made by appellate counsel were appropriate for plain error review as counsel argued that the jury was presented with multiple theories of guilt, one of which was erroneous, and the error had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Newby, concurred, agreeing with the court’s interpretation of Pakulski and its determination that appellate counsel was not ineffective, but writing separately to clarify the general matter that a defendant may be convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon under an acting in concert theory.  Noting that neither the North Carolina Supreme Court nor the Court of Appeals has ever directly held that a defendant can be convicted of that offense on the basis of an acting in concert theory, Justice Ervin described the “general availability of the acting in concert doctrine in possession-related cases” and stated that he was not persuaded that the theory is inapplicable to the offense of possession of a firearm by a felon.

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Davis, dissented, expressing the view that the majority opinion’s explanations of Pakulski and appellate counsel’s arguments were inaccurate.  In Justice Earls’ view, Pakulski applied the plain error standard of review and appellate counsel did not meet the obligation to argue to the Court of Appeals that the defendant could not be convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon based on someone else’s possession.

State v. Maddux, 371 N.C. 558 (Oct. 26, 2018)

On discretionary review of a unanimous, unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 803 S.E.2d 463 (2017), the court held that although the trial court erred in giving an aiding and abetting instruction, the Court of Appeals incorrectly concluded that the error amounted to plain error. The defendant was charged with manufacturing methamphetamine and trafficking in methamphetamine by manufacture and by possession. The trial court instructed the jury—without objection—that it could find the defendant guilty either through a theory of individual guilt or as an aider and abettor. The defendant was convicted and appealed. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in giving the aiding and abetting instruction because it was not supported by the evidence, and that this error constituted plain error. The State sought review. The Supreme Court agreed that the trial court erred in giving the aiding and abetting instruction but held that no plain error occurred. To demonstrate that a trial court committed plain error, the defendant must show that a fundamental error occurred. To show this, a defendant must establish prejudice—that after examining the entire record, the error had a probable impact on the jury’s finding of guilt. Because plain error is to be applied cautiously and only in the exceptional case, the error will often be one that seriously affects the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings. Here, the Court of Appeals indicated that the lack of overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence required the conclusion that a jury probably would have reached a different result had the erroneous instruction not been given. The Supreme Court found that this was error, clarifying that its precedent does not hold that plain error is shown, and a new trial is required, unless the evidence against the defendant is overwhelming and uncontroverted. Considering the entire record, the court held that ample evidence of the defendant’s individual guilt made it unlikely that the improper instruction had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty. Specifically, the court noted all of the items found throughout the defendant’s residence that the State’s witnesses identified as being commonly used in the production of methamphetamine, including immediate precursor chemicals to the manufacture of methamphetamine, and all of the evidence found inside the one-pot meth lab and burn barrel on the defendant’s property, including the plastic bottles that tested positive for methamphetamine and pseudoephedrine. It concluded: “After examining the entire record, we conclude that the erroneous aiding and abetting instruction did not have a probable impact on the jury’s finding that defendant was guilty because of the evidence indicating that defendant, individually, used the components found throughout his house to manufacture methamphetamine in the one-pot meth lab on his own property.”

State v. Carter, 366 N.C. 496 (Apr. 12, 2013)

The court reversed the decision below in State v. Carter,216 N.C. App. 453 (Nov. 1, 2011) (in a child sexual offense case, the trial court committed plain error by failing to instruct on attempted sexual offense where the evidence of penetration was conflicting), concluding that the defendant failed to show plain error. The court held that when applying the plain error standard

[t]he necessary examination is whether there was a “probable impact” on the verdict, not a possible one. In other words, the inquiry is whether the defendant has shown that, “absent the error, the jury probably would have returned a different verdict.” Thus, the Court of Appeals’ consideration of what the jury “could rationally have found,” was improper.

Slip Op at 7 (citations omitted). Turning to the case at hand, the court found even if the trial court had erred, the defendant failed to show a probable impact on the verdict.

State v. Towe, 366 N.C. 56 (June 14, 2012)

The court modified and affirmed State v. Towe, 210 N.C. App. 430 (Mar. 15, 2011) (plain error to allow the State’s medical expert to testify that the child victim was sexually abused when no physical findings supported this conclusion). The court agreed that the expert’s testimony was improper but held that the court of appeals mischaracterized the plain error test. The court of appeals applied a “highly plausible that the jury could have reached a different result” standard. The correct standard, however, is whether a fundamental error occurred that “had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty.” Applying that standard, the court found it satisfied.

State v. Lawrence, 365 N.C. 506 (Apr. 13, 2012)

Reaffirming its decision in State v. Odom, 307 N.C. 655, 660 (1983), the court clarified “how the plain error standard of review applies on appeal to unpreserved instructional or evidentiary error.” It stated:

For error to constitute plain error, a defendant must demonstrate that a fundamental error occurred at trial. To show that an error was fundamental, a defendant must establish prejudice—that, after examination of the entire record, the error “had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant was guilty.” Moreover, because plain error is to be “applied cautiously and only in the exceptional case,” the error will often be one that “seriously affect[s] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.”

(citations omitted). Applying that rule to the case at hand, the court held that the court of appeals applied the incorrect formulation of the plain error standard in State v. Lawrence, 210N.C. App. 73 (Mar. 1, 2011) (holding that the trial judge committed plain error by failing to instruct the jury on all elements of conspiracy to commit armed robbery). Although the trial judge erred (the judge instructed the jury that armed robbery involved a taking from the person or presence of another while using or in the possession of a firearm but failed to instruct on the element of use of the weapon to threaten or endanger the life of the victim), the error did not rise to the level of plain error.

On remand from the Supreme Court’s opinion in State v. Goins, 2021-NCSC-65 (2021) directing the Court of Appeals to address the defendant’s remaining issues on appeal, the court determined that even if the trial court erred by allowing an investigator to interpret  certain video footage or in failing to instruct on a lesser-included offense, those assumed errors did not rise to the level of plain error.  The court noted that the Supreme Court already had interpreted under a less taxing standard certain other evidence in the case as “virtually uncontested” evidence of the defendant’s guilt and that it would create a paradox for the Court of Appeals to collaterally undermine that analysis by finding plain error with respect to the assumed errors at issue.

Plain error review is not available for a claim that the trial court erred by requiring the defendant to wear prison garb during trial. Plain error is normally limited to instructional and evidentiary error.

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