Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


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., 04/21/2024
E.g., 04/21/2024

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.

In this Wayne County case, defendant appealed judgments for possession of heroin and cocaine and resisting a public officer, arguing error in failing to order a competency hearing sua sponte and ineffective assistance of counsel. Defendant’s appellate counsel also filed a brief under Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738 (1967), requesting the Court of Appeals conduct an independent review of the record. After review, the court found no error with the lack of a competency hearing, dismissed the ineffective assistance of counsel argument without prejudice, and remanded the matter to the trial court for review of whether defendant validly waived indictment. 

Defendant’s convictions arose from separate incidents in December 2018 and April 2021, where defendant was found with heroin and cocaine, respectively. In May of 2022 defendant pleaded guilty to the charges. Defendant’s appellate counsel then filed an Anders brief and defendant filed arguments on his own. 

Examining defendant’s first argument, the Court of Appeals disagreed that the trial court committed error by failing to order a competency hearing. The court noted that no party raised the issue of defendant’s capacity, and “the trial court extensively inquired as to Defendant’s mental capacity and understanding of the proceedings.” Slip Op. at 4. The applicable standard from State v. Heptinstall, 309 N.C. 231 (1983), only requires a trial court to order a hearing sua sponte if substantial evidence before the court indicates the defendant is incompetent. Because there was no substantial evidence of defendant’s lack of capacity before the trial court here, there was no error. 

Considering the ineffective assistance of counsel argument, the court explained that generally these claims “should be considered through motions for appropriate relief and not on direct appeal.” Slip Op. at 7. Because the record here was not fully developed to consider defendant’s argument regarding his representation, the court dismissed the claim without prejudice so that defendant could file a motion for appropriate relief with the trial court. 

Conducting the independent review requested by defense counsel’s Anders brief, the court identified one possible error with the information related to the April 2021 charges. On the last page of the information, a file number was crossed out and replaced with a partially illegible handwritten number. The court explained “[w]hile this may be a scrivener’s error, our independent review of the Record at least reveals this potential issue of whether Defendant validly waived his right to indictment by a grand jury specifically in file number 18 CRS 55019.” Id. at 9. Based on this issue, the court remanded to the trial court to ensure the waiver of indictment was valid. 

In this Burke County case, defendant appealed the partial denial of his motion for appropriate relief (MAR), arguing he was entitled to a new trial because the trial court did not conduct a sua sponte inquiry into his competency after he overdosed and fell into a stupor during jury deliberations. The Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court order on the MAR and denied a new trial.

Defendant first appealed his conviction in State v. Minyard, 231 N.C. App. 605, disc. rev. denied, 367 N.C. 495 (2014). Defendant was convicted in 2012 for five counts of indecent liberties with a minor and first-degree sexual offense, as well as habitual felon status. During the jury deliberations and outside the presence of the jury, defendant managed to consume fifteen Klonopin along with alcohol and suffered an overdose in the courtroom. Defendant was treated by emergency medical services and missed the remainder of deliberations as well as the verdict. Defendant was present for the habitual felon status and sentencing portions of his proceeding. After his conviction, defendant appealed and ultimately filed several MARs, none of which resulted in a new trial. 

Defendant’s MAR giving rise to the current case was filed in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Sides, 376 N.C. 449 (2020). Based upon the reasoning in that case, the superior court judge considering the MAR only found error with the trial court’s failure to conduct a competency hearing prior to the habitual felon and sentencing phases of the proceeding, not the initial trial. As a result, the MAR order vacated defendant’s habitual felon status and sentence, but denied the request for a new trial. The State did not cross-appeal the habitual felon and sentencing issues. 

Taking up the MAR order, the Court of Appeals waded into the caselaw surrounding a defendant’s competency and the right to be voluntarily absent from trial. The court examined the facts in Sides, where the defendant took sixty Xanax tablets on the third day of trial; a doctor subsequently recommended she be involuntarily committed, and a magistrate agreed. The Sides decision held “that while a defendant may voluntarily waive the constitutional right to be present at trial, the defendant may only waive the right when she is competent.” Slip Op. at 12. In Sides, the trial court skipped the important determination of the defendant’s competency before assuming that she voluntarily took an act to absent herself from trial, and should have conducted a competency hearing once it was presented with “substantial evidence” of the defendant’s incompetence. Id. at 12-13, quoting Sides. However, in State v. Flow, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 28, 2023), the Supreme Court drew a distinction between a defendant who jumped off a jailhouse balcony and the defendant in Sides. In Flow, the defendant’s capacity had not been called into question before his jump, and the evidence considered by the trial court did not indicate that the defendant was incompetent. As a result, the Flow trial court found, “implicitly at least,” that the defendant was competent when he acted voluntarily to waive his right to be present at trial, a decision the Supreme Court upheld. Slip Op. at 15, quoting Flow

Looking to the current case, the court concluded that “[n]o substantial evidence tended to alert the court or counsel nor cast doubt on Defendant’s competency prior to his voluntary actions,” and “[u]nlike in Sides, the trial court was not presented with any evidence of a history of Defendant’s mental illness.” Id. at 15-16. The court concluded that Sides was inapplicable and defendant’s request for a new trial was properly denied. The court then determined, without deciding whether an error occurred, that any violation was not a structural error, and was harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt. Affirming the MAR order, the court remanded for habitual felon proceedings and resentencing. 

The defendant was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder at trial in Wake County. The defendant had a history of mental illness and had been involuntarily committed in the past. After he was charged with the murders, the defendant was observed by a forensic psychiatrist at a mental hospital.  While the defendant initially exhibited some bizarre symptoms—some of which the treatment team believed to be evidence of malingering—his behavior improved after some time. Defense counsel arranged for a formal competency evaluation, which determined the defendant to be capable of standing trial. Once the defendant was returned to county jail from the hospital, he began accusing the lead defense attorney in his case of conspiring to have him convicted and making other fantastic allegations. A second competency evaluation was ordered. The evaluator found that, while the defendant was making “poor choices” and exhibiting “self-sabotaging” behavior, the defendant remained capable of rational thinking and was competent to stand trial.

Prior to trial, a third competency evaluation was sought, but defense attorneys conceded they had no new evidence in support of the request. The request was denied. Throughout jury selection, the defendant repeatedly interrupted the proceedings with outbursts and accusations over the course of several days and had to be shackled. He also sought to disqualify his lead defense attorney (which the trial court denied). Prior to opening statements, defense counsel notified the judge that they were not sure whether to give an opening statement, as the defendant had refused to work with them to decide on strategy. After a recess and an opportunity for the defendant to consult with defense counsel, defense counsel gave an opening statement. The defendant’s interruptions continued during the State’s case-in-chief, and he had to be removed from the courtroom. The defendant was convicted of all three murders.

During the penalty phase, defense evidence showed that the defendant could be exaggerating his mental illness or malingering, or that he was in fact doing so. The jury recommended life imprisonment, and the court ordered the defendant to serve consecutive life without parole terms for each count.

The record was not clear on whether the defendant gave oral notice of appeal in open court following the judgment, and a written notice of appeal filed by trial counsel failed to identify the file numbers of two of the charges, among other defects. In its discretion, the Court of Appeals granted the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari to review the matter.  

(1) The trial court did not err in failing to sua sponte order a third competency evaluation based on the defendant’s behavior at trial. The second competency evaluation was performed to address concerns that the defendant was unable to work with his attorneys, and it determined that the defendant had the capacity to work with his attorneys if he so desired. The beliefs and behaviors of the defendant leading to the second evaluation were the same behaviors he exhibited at trial and did not warrant sua sponte intervention by the trial court. According to the court:

“. . . Defendant’s refusal to work with his counsel at trial, his belief he was being framed by them, and his aggression in the courtroom was not new conduct. Instead, these behaviors were the subject of a previous evaluation that determined him competent. As such, these facts do not suggest a change in competency warranting a sua sponte hearing under our caselaw. Sander Slip op. at 17.

Further, the defendant’s behaviors (however odd) indicated that he understood the allegations and evidence against him and showed that he meant to deny the charges. There was therefore no error in failing to sua sponte order a third competency evaluation.

(2) The defendant claimed that his attorneys struck certain jurors that he wanted to keep and argued that the record showed an impasse between the defendant and his attorneys on this point. The court disagreed that an impasse between counsel and the defendant was apparent on the cold record. The court dismissed this claim without prejudice, allowing the defendant to pursue this issue via a motion for appropriate relief if he desires.

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