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., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021

In 2015, the defendant was charged with several drug crimes and with having attained habitual felon status. In November 2016, a forensic psychologist evaluated the defendant and determined that he suffered from an intellectual disability, memory impairment, and overall neurological dysfunction, and that he was not capable of proceeding to trial. An evaluation in February 2017 by a forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Berger, reached the same conclusion. After another evaluation in June 2017, however, Dr. Berger concluded that the defendant was capable of proceeding to trial. At the ensuing pretrial competency hearing in August 2017, the trial court determined that the defendant was capable to proceed. The charges came on for trial in February 2018 and the defendant was convicted by a jury of several substantive drug crimes and then pled guilty to having attained habitual felon status. On appeal, a divided panel of the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court erred by failing to conduct another competency hearing before the defendant’s trial began. State v. Allen, 269 N.C. App. 24 (2019). The panel noted that the trial court has a constitutional duty to initiate competency hearings on its own motion if the record contains substantial evidence tending to show that the defendant might not be competent, and that there was such evidence in the defendant’s case, including his history of involuntary commitments, mental health history, significant intellectual disabilities, previous evaluations finding him incapable to proceed, and his mistaken responses to questions the trial judge posed to him at trial. The majority concluded that the evaluation from June 2017 “was not current, and may not have accurately reflected Defendant’s mental state at trial in February 2018,” and remanded the matter to the trial division to determine whether the defendant was competent at the time of trial. The dissent expressed the opinion that there was not “substantial evidence” tending to show the defendant might be incompetent at the time of trial.

On appeal, the Supreme Court considered whether there was substantial evidence sufficient to raise a bona fide doubt concerning the defendant’s competence at the time of trial. The Court reviewed the facts of the case, including the defendant’s mental health history and the course of treatment that ultimately led to the trial court’s determination that he was competent to proceed. The Court noted that, at the time the case was called for trial, neither party made any attempt to revisit the issue of the defendant’s competence. The Court was also unpersuaded that the defendant’s remarks to the trial judge during the plea colloquy on the habitual felon charge were substantial evidence of incompetence. In the absence of substantial evidence, the Court concluded that the trial court was entitled to rely on the pretrial competency determination completed eight months before trial. The Court therefore reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion.

The defendant was on trial for four counts of embezzlement when she attempted to commit suicide by ingesting 60 Xanax tablets during an evening recess. The defendant was found unresponsive, taken to the hospital, and involuntarily committed for evaluation and treatment. The trial was postponed until the following week, at which time the trial judge reviewed medical records and conferred with counsel before ruling that the defendant was voluntarily absent by her own actions and the trial could continue without her. The defendant was convicted by the jury, sentenced when she returned to court at a later date, and appealed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to conduct a competency hearing sua sponte before declaring her voluntarily absent. A divided Court of Appeals found no error, since the trial court is only required to examine competency sua sponte if there is substantial evidence before it that raises a bona fide doubt about the defendant’s competence. Based on a review of the record as a whole, the appellate court was not persuaded that the defendant’s suicide attempt was a result of mental illness rather than a voluntary act intended to avoid facing prison.

The state Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. The higher court concluded that by “skipping over the issue of competency and simply assuming that defendant’s suicide attempt was a voluntary act that constituted a waiver of her right to be present during her trial” the trial court and the Court of Appeals majority had “put the cart before the horse.” In non-capital trials, a defendant may waive his or her right to be present, but the defendant must be competent to do so. In this case, there was substantial evidence before the court that raised a bona fide doubt about the defendant’s competence. In addition to the suicide attempt itself, the court was aware that the defendant had been involuntarily committed due to a high risk of self-harm, and the court reviewed additional medical records regarding the defendant’s history of mood disorders and prescribed medications. The trial court began an inquiry into defendant’s competence by ordering the medical records and discussing the issue with counsel, but erred when it stopped short of conducting a formal competency hearing before declaring her voluntarily absent. Finally, due to the amount of time that has elapsed since the trial, a retrospective competency hearing was no longer feasible; therefore, the conviction was vacated and the case remanded for a new trial – if the defendant is found competent.

Justice Morgan dissented, joined by Justices Newby and Ervin, and would have held that the evidence before the trial court did not raise the same doubts about the defendant’s competence as those that were present in the case precedent cited by the majority, and therefore the trial court did not err by declaring her voluntarily absent.

Defendant was charged in 2012 with several counts of second-degree sex offense and taking indecent liberties against his step-daughter, and went to trial in 2018. During the intervening six years, defendant received a total of seven mental health evaluations in which there were “fluctuating determinations” of his competency to stand trial. The defendant was initially found to be suffering from mental illness and unable to assist in his own defense, rendering him incompetent. Subsequent evaluations found him competent as long as he continued receiving treatment, but also subject to rapid decompensation if his treatment regimen or sleeping arrangements were disrupted. The last evaluation, finding defendant competent, was conducted four months prior to trial. On the third day of trial, defense counsel raised competency concerns with the court based on the defendant’s apparent confusion and vacant demeanor. During an inquiry the next morning, the trial judge concluded that the defendant’s confusion was likely due to the technical nature of an evidentiary issue being argued, and defense counsel expressed no further concerns, so the trial continued. The defendant was convicted by the jury, sentenced to 150 years in prison, and appealed. 

On review from a dissent in the Court of Appeals, the state Supreme Court held that the trial judge erred by failing to conduct another competency hearing sua sponte when faced with substantial evidence that raised a bona fide doubt about defendant’s competency. That evidence included the lapse of time since defendant’s last evaluation, his long history of mental illness and tendency for rapid deterioration, and the concerns raised by counsel during trial. Competence to stand trial is a due process right, and “the trial court must remain on guard over a defendant’s competency” during trial, even in cases where the defendant was found competent at the start of the proceedings. In light of the defendant’s history, the possibility that his confusion at trial could have been caused by his unfamiliarity with a technical legal issue “must yield to the necessity of the criminal justice system to ensure that a defendant’s due-process rights are protected.” The ruling from the Court of Appeals, which remanded the case to the trial court for a hearing to determine defendant’s competency at the time of trial, was therefore affirmed.

Justice Newby dissented, and would have held that “one isolated incident” of confusion did not create a duty to conduct further inquiry; he would have affirmed the trial court’s actions based on the judge’s in-court observations of the defendant, defense counsel’s assurance that he had no further concerns, and the pretrial determinations of competency.

In 2007, the defendant shot and killed one victim, a family friend, and seriously injured a second victim, his mother. After he was arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder, the defendant was evaluated and found to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and substance abuse disorder, rendering him unable to assist in his own defense and incompetent to stand trial. The state dismissed the charges with leave to reinstate. The defendant was re-evaluated by two doctors in 2015 and 2016, and both doctors concluded that the defendant had substantially improved in response to medication and treatment and was now competent to proceed. Based on the new evaluations and a joint motion from the defense and the state, the court declared the defendant competent. The state reinstated the criminal charges and the defendant proceeded to trial, where he was convicted of murder and attempted murder. On appeal, the defense argued that the trial court erred by not ordering another competency assessment sua sponte, in light of the defendant’s history and mental condition. Based on the record as a whole, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court did not err. Although the defendant still appeared to hold a number of delusional beliefs, “irrational beliefs and nonsensible positions” do not, by themselves, raise a bona fide doubt about competency. The trial court heard testimony from two doctors opining that the defendant was competent, and the defendant demonstrated that he was able to confer with his counsel, assist in his defense, engage in colloquies with the court on legal issues, make a knowing and voluntary waiver of his right to remain silent, and testify “lucidly and at length on his own behalf.” Therefore, the defense failed to demonstrate that there was substantial evidence he was incompetent during the trial, and the trial court did not err by declining to order another competency hearing sua sponte.

In this drug trafficking case, the trial court erred by failing to appoint an expert to investigate the defendant’s competency to stand trial. Prior to the start of trial, defense counsel expressed concern about the defendant having fallen asleep in the courtroom. The trial court conducted a discussion with the defendant and defense counsel and ruled that the defendant was competent to proceed to trial. The colloquy revealed, among other things, that the defendant was having difficulty hearing and understanding the judge and that the defendant took over 25 medications daily in connection with a heart condition and being diagnosed as a bipolar schizophrenic. Defense counsel related never having seen the defendant so lethargic. Although the defendant seemed to understand the charges against him and possible sentences he might receive, he had little memory of meeting with counsel prior to trial. After the trial began, defense counsel informed the court that the defendant was sleeping during the trial. The court concluded that the evidence indicated a significant possibility at the time of trial that the defendant was incompetent, requiring the trial court to appoint an expert to ascertain whether the defendant was competent to proceed to trial. The court noted that its holding was based on “long-standing legal principles” and that it “should not be interpreted as articulating a new rule or standard.” It was careful to state that the trial court is not required to order a competency evaluation in every case where a criminal defendant is drowsy or suffers from mental or physical illness.

Where the defendant voluntarily ingested a large quantity of sedative, hypnotic or anxiolytic medications and alcohol during jury deliberations of his non-capital trial, the trial court did not err by failing to conduct a sua sponte competency hearing. The court relied on the fact that the defendant voluntarily ingested the intoxicants in a short period of time apparently with the intent of affecting his competency.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his due process rights were violated when the trial court failed to sua sponte conduct a second competency hearing. The court held that the record demonstrated the defendant’s competency, that there was no evidence that his competency was temporal in nature, and that the trial court did not err by failing to sua sponte conduct another competency hearing. It further found that the trial court’s findings were supported by competent evidence.

(1) The trial court did not err by failing to inquire, sua sponte, about the defendant’s competency after he was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric unit during trial. After the defendant failed to appear in court mid-trial and defense counsel was unable to explain his absence, the defendant was tried in absentia. Later during trial, defense counsel obtained information indicating that the defendant might have been committed, but was unable to confirm that. Evidence produced in connection with the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) established that he in fact had been committed at that time. However, during trial, there was no evidence that the defendant had a history of mental illness and the defendant’s conduct in court indicated that he was able to communicate clearly and with a reasonable degree of rational understanding. While the trial court had information indicating that the defendant might have been committed, defense counsel was unable to confirm that information. Furthermore, at the MAR hearing defense counsel maintained he had no reason to believe anything was wrong with the defendant and thought the defendant’s hospitalization was part of a plan to avoid prosecution. (2) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s MAR which asserted that the defendant was incompetent to stand trial. Adequate evidence supported the trial court’s determination that the defendant was malingering.

The trial court erred by failing to sua sponte order a hearing to evaluate the defendant’s competency to stand trial. Although no one raised an issue of competency, a trial court has a constitutional duty to sua sponte hold a competency hearing if there is substantial evidence indicating that the defendant may be incompetent. Here, that standard was satisfied. The defendant proffered evidence of his extensive mental health treatment history and testimony from a treating psychiatrist showing that he has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, anti-social personality disorder, and cocaine dependency in remission. Additionally, his conduct before and during trial suggests a lack of capacity, including, among other things, refusing to get dressed for trial and nonsensically interrupting. The court rejected the remedy of a retrospective competency hearing and ordered a new trial.

The trial court erred by failing to sua sponte inquire into the defendant’s competency. In light of the defendant’s history of mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, her remarks that her appointed counsel was working for the State and that the trial court wanted her to plead guilty, coupled with her irrational behavior in the courtroom, constituted substantial evidence and created a bona fidedoubt as to competency. The court rejected the State’s argument that the trial court did in fact inquire into competency when, after defense counsel mentioned that she had recently undergone surgery and was taking pain medication, the trial court asked the defendant and counsel whether the medication was impairing her ability to understand the proceedings or her decision to reject the plea bargain offered by the State. Both replied in the negative. The trial court also asked the defendant about her ability to read and write and whether she understood the charges against her. However, this inquiry pertained only to effects of the pain medication. More importantly, it was not timely given that the defendant’s refusal to return to the courtroom and resulting outbursts occurred two days later. The court remanded for a determination of whether a meaningful retrospective competency hearing could be held.

The trial court abused its discretion by denying defense counsel’s motion requesting that the defendant be evaluated by a mental health professional to determine competency. At the call of the case for trial, defense counsel made a motion, supported by an affidavit by defense counsel and prior mental health evaluation reports, questioning the defendant’s capacity to proceed and seeking an assessment of his competency by a mental health professional. After conducting a hearing on the motion and considering the documentary evidence and arguments presented, the trial court denied the motion. Reviewing those materials, the court concluded that “[t]he entirety of the evidence presented . . . indicated a ‘significant possibility’ that defendant may have been incompetent . . . , necessitating the trial court to appoint an expert or experts to inquire into defendant’s mental health”. The court noted that when the a trial court conducts a proper competency hearing but abuses its discretion in proceeding to trial in light of the evidence indicating the defendant’s incompetency to proceed, the proper remedy is to vacate the judgment and remand the case for a new trial if and when the defendant is properly determined competent to proceed with trial. However, in this case a defense witness, Dr. Corvin, testified on direct examination that “there has been a time during my evaluation where I was somewhat concerned about [defendant’s current competency to stand trial], although not currently.” The court noted that defense counsel did not question Dr. Corvin on the issue of competency. It concluded: “Given Dr. Corvin’s presence at trial and his testimony that he was not currently concerned with defendant’s competency to stand trial, we fail to see how the trial court’s error prejudiced defendant.”

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his due process rights were violated when the trial judge failed to provide him with a hearing before ordering an examination of his capacity to proceed. G.S. 15A-1002 does not require the trial judge to conduct a hearing before such an examination. A defendant may request a hearing after the examination but failure to do so—as happened here—constitutes a waiver.

In a per curiam decision in this capital murder case decided under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the Court held that the state court did not unreasonably apply the law when it determined that the defendant was competent to be executed. The defendant was sentenced to death in an Alabama court. As his execution neared, the defendant petitioned the trial court for a suspension of his death sentence, arguing that due to several recent strokes, he had become incompetent to be executed. At a hearing on the matter, a court appointed psychologist noted the defendant’s significant post-stroke decline but testified that he understood the posture of his case and that the State was seeking retribution against him for his criminal act. A defense psychologist testified that the defendant’s strokes rendered him unable to remember numerous events that had occurred in the past. However, he found that the defendant was able to understand the nature of the pending proceeding, what he was tried for, that he was in prison because of murder, that Alabama was seeking retribution for that crime, and the sentence, specifically the meaning of a death sentence. The defense witness also opined that the defendant does not understand the act he is being punished for because he cannot recall the sequence of events from the offense through the trial and believes that he “never went around killing folks.” After the trial court denied the defendant’s petition, the defendant pursued federal habeas proceedings. The federal district court denied the defendant’s petition and the Eleventh Circuit reversed. That court found that because the defendant has no memory of his capital offense it inescapably follows that he does not rationally understand the connection between his crime and his execution. On that basis, the federal appellate court held that the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant is competent to be executed was plainly unreasonable. The Court disagreed. Reviewing its prior case law, the Court concluded that those decisions did not clearly establish that a prisoner is incompetent to be executed because of a failure to remember his commission of the crime, as distinct from the failure to rationally comprehend the concepts of crime and punishment as applied in his case. Thus, the state court did not unreasonably apply Supreme Court law when it determined that the defendant was competent to be executed because, notwithstanding his memory loss, he recognizes that he will be put to death as punishment for the murder he was found to have committed.

The defendant was competent to stand trial and to represent himself. As to competency to stand trial, the defendant had several competency evaluations and hearings; the court rejected the defendant’s argument that a report of the one doctor who opined that he was incompetent was determinative of the issue, noting that numerous other doctors opined that he was malingering. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that even after several competency hearings, the trial court erred by failing to hold another competency hearing when the defendant disrupted the courtroom, noting in part that four doctors had opined that the defendant’s generally disruptive behavior was volitional. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that even if he was competent to stand trial, the trial court erred by allowing him to proceed pro se. The court found Indiana v. Edwards inapplicable because here--and unlike in Edwards--the trial court granted the defendant’s request to proceed pro se. Also, the defendant did not challenge the validity of the waiver of counsel colloquy.

The defendant was tried for possession of a firearm by a felon, first-degree kidnapping, burglary, DVPO violations with a deadly weapon, first-degree rape and first-degree forcible sexual offense arising from the violent kidnapping and rape of his former girlfriend.

(1) The morning before the sixth day of the trial, the defendant jumped feet first from a second-floor mezzanine in the jail, injuring his left leg and ribs. The defendant was taken to the hospital for surgery. After a hearing, the trial court determined that the defendant’s absence from trial was voluntary and announced that the trial would proceed without him. The trial court considered and denied defense counsel’s motion that the court inquire into defendant’s capacity to proceed. The trial continued, and the defendant was convicted. He appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by denying defense counsel’s motion for an inquiry into capacity.

The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument. Nothing in the defendant’s prior record, conduct or actions provided the trial court with notice or evidence that the defendant may have been incompetent. For that reason, the court did not err by declining to conduct a more intensive hearing on the defendant’s capacity. The trial court had the opportunity to personally observe the defendant’s conduct and demeanor, heard arguments from the State and defense counsel, and took evidence concerning the defendant’s competency, including watching recorded footage of the defendant jumping 16 feet from the second-floor mezzanine.

(2) The trial court instructed the jury that it could find the defendant guilty of a first-degree sexual offense, if, in addition to the other required elements, it found the defendant had engaged in fellatio or anal intercourse. The defendant argued that this instruction deprived him of a unanimous jury verdict. The Court of Appeals rejected that argument, citing precedent that a jury verdict does not need to make a specific finding regarding precisely which sexual acts proscribed by G.S. 14-27.26 the defendant committed.

The defendant was charged with assault of a detention officer causing physical injury in Bertie County. Defense counsel obtained a capacity evaluation of the defendant. It showed that the defendant was not capable to stand trial but indicated his capacity could be restored. At a hearing on the defendant’s capacity, the trial court failed to make findings regarding the defendant’s capacity but instead found the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity (“NGRI”) and ordered him involuntarily committed.

The defendant failed to give notice of appeal in a timely manner and the Court of Appeals consequently lacked jurisdiction to consider it. In recognition of his defective notice of appeal, the defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari. That petition was also flawed in that it failed to identify the order from which review was sought. The defendant subsequently filed a second petition for certiorari to remedy that defect. In its discretion, the court granted the second petition to reach the merits of the defendant’s arguments.

(1) G.S. 15A-1002 requires a hearing when the defendant’s capacity to proceed is at issue and requires the court to make findings supporting the trial court’s conclusions. In failing to determine the defendant’s capacity and make findings in support, the trial court violated a statutory mandate. In addition, the defendant’s due process rights were violated when the NGRI plea was entered without a finding that the defendant was capable of proceeding. There was also no evidence that the defendant agreed to the entry of the plea. Although this was a question of first impression in North Carolina, the court agreed with other jurisdictions that a NGRI plea from a person lacking capacity is a due process violation. The court observed that this error was prejudicial, in that one acquitted by reason of insanity bears the burden of proof to show that the person is no longer mentally ill. See G.S. 122C-276.1(c). The NGRI order was therefore vacated, and the matter remanded for a capacity hearing.

(2) Under G.S. 15A-1008, a defendant who lacks capacity is entitled to dismissal once he or she has been confined for the maximum period of time authorized for a prior record level VI offender. Here, because the offense was a class I felony punishable by 21 months at most and the defendant had been confined for at least 23 months, in the event the trial court determines that the defendant lacks capacity on remand, the charge must be dismissed.

When assessing whether a defendant is charged with a violent crime pursuant to G.S. 15A-1003(a) and in connection with an involuntary commitment determination, courts may consider the elements of the charged offense and the underlying facts giving rise to the charge. However, the fact-based analysis applies only with respect to determining whether the crime involved assault with a deadly weapon. The court held:

[F]or purposes of [G.S.] 15A-1003(a), a “violent crime” can be either one which has as an element “the use, attempted use, threatened use, or substantial risk of use of physical force against the person or property of another[,]” or a crime which does not have violence as an element, but assault with a deadly weapon was involved in its commission.

Slip Op. at 10 (citation omitted). Here, the defendant was charged with possession of a firearm by a felon and resisting an officer. Because violence is not an element of either offense, neither qualifies as a violent crime under the elements-based test. However, applying the fact-based analysis, the commission of the offenses involved an assault with a deadly weapon. The fact that the defendant stated that he wasn’t going with the officers, that he ran into a bedroom and stood within reach of a loaded revolver, and that he resisted while being handcuffed and removed showed an unequivocal appearance of an attempt, with force and violence, to do some immediate physical injury to the officers.

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