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., 06/21/2024
E.g., 06/21/2024

In this felon in possession of a firearm case, the defendant was not deprived of effective assistance of counsel when the trial court rejected defense counsel’s attempt to stipulate to the fact that the defendant was a convicted felon where the defendant disagreed with the stipulation. Before trial, the State and defense counsel agreed to stipulate that the defendant had previously been convicted of a felony. After conferring with the defendant, defense counsel told the trial court that the defendant did not want to sign the stipulation. Defense counsel stated that he believed the stipulation was in the defendant’s best interest. The trial court rejected the proposed stipulation. The court noted that the defendant’s argument was premised on a notion rejected by the state high court: that where the defendant and his lawyer reach an impasse regarding a tactical decision, defense counsel’s decision trumps the defendant’s decision. This notion is inconsistent with North Carolina law regarding the absolute impasse rule. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the absolute impasse rule did not apply because he was not fully informed regarding his stipulation and that an absolute impasse had not been established.

The court rejected the defendant’s assertion that counsel was ineffective by failing to state for the record details of an absolute impasse between himself and counsel. Although the defendant initially wanted counsel to make certain admissions in opening statements to the jury, after discussing the issue with counsel he informed the court that he would follow counsel’s advice. The court noted there was neither disagreement regarding tactical decisions nor anything in the record suggesting any conflict between the defendant and defense counsel. Although counsel made statements to the trial court indicating that he was having difficulty believing things that the defendant told him, the court noted: “Defendant points to no authority which would require a finding of an impasse where defense counsel did not believe what a criminal-defendant client told him.”

The court reversed the Court of Appeals’ determination that the defendant was entitled to a new trial based on the trial court’s alleged failure to recognize and address an impasse between the defendant and his attorney during trial. The court concluded that the record did not allow it to determine whether the defendant had a serious disagreement with his attorney regarding trial strategy or whether he simply sought to hinder the proceedings. It remanded for entry of an order dismissing the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim without prejudice to his right to assert it in a motion for appropriate relief.

Where the defendant and counsel reached an impasse regarding whether to cross-examine the State’s DNA analyst witness on an issue of sample contamination in this child sexual assault case, the trial court did not did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights by ruling that it would be improper for counsel to pursue a frivolous line of questioning. Prior to the witness’s testimony, the trial court heard ex parte from the defendant and his lawyer about their disagreement regarding a proposed line of cross-examination of the analyst. The trial court ruled in favor of defense counsel and the trial resumed. The absolute impasse rule does not require an attorney to comply with the client’s request to assert frivolous or unsupported claims. Here, although the defendant wanted to challenge the analyst with respect to contamination, there was no factual basis for such a challenge. The court went on to conclude that even if the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights had been violated, in light of the overwhelming evidence of guilt the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. [Author’s note: for a discussion of the absolute impasse rule, see my Benchbook chapter here.]

An absolute impasse did not occur when trial counsel refused to abide by the defendant’s wishes to pursue claims of prosecutorial and other misconduct that counsel believed to be frivolous. Under the absolute impasse doctrine counsel need only abide by a defendant’s lawful instructions with respect to trial strategy. Here, the impasses was not over tactical decisions, but rather over whether the defendant could compel counsel to file frivolous motions and assert theories that lacked any basis in fact. The court concluded: “Because nothing in our case law requires counsel to present theories unsupported in fact or law, the trial court did not err in failing to instruct counsel to defer to Defendant’s wishes.”

When the defendant and trial counsel reached an absolute impasse regarding the use of a peremptory challenge to strike a juror, the trial court committed reversible error by not requiring counsel to abide by the defendant’s wishes. “It was error for the trial court to allow council’s decision to control when an absolute impasse was reached on this tactical decision, and the matter had been brought to the trial court’s attention.”

In this Wake County case, defendant appealed his convictions for forcible rape, sex offense, kidnapping, various assault charges, and interfering with emergency communication, arguing (1) he was deprived of his right to autonomy in the presentation of his defense, (2) he was deprived of effective assistance of counsel when his attorney admitted guilt during closing argument, and (3) the trial court lacked jurisdiction to sentence him for habitual misdemeanor assault due to a facially invalid indictment. The Court of Appeals majority disagreed, finding no error. 

In April of 2020, defendant came to trial for assaulting and raping a woman he was dating at the time. During the trial, defense counsel informed the court that defendant would not testify or present evidence, and the trial court conducted a colloquy to ensure defendant was knowingly waiving this right. During the colloquy, defendant mentioned documentary evidence he wanted to admit, but that his attorney had not admitted. The trial court did not instruct defense counsel to introduce the evidence. During closing argument, defense counsel mentioned that defendant was not guilty of kidnapping, sexual offense, or rape, but did not mention assault. Defendant was subsequently convicted, and appealed.  

In (1), defendant contended that he and defense counsel had reached an absolute impasse about the documentary evidence, and the trial court committed a structural error by failing to instruct defense counsel to comply with defendant’s wishes to admit the evidence. The Court of Appeals first noted the rule that “where the defendant and his defense counsel reach an absolute impasse and are unable come to an agreement on such tactical decisions, the defendant’s wishes must control.” Slip Op. at 5. However, here the court was “unable to determine from the cold record whether there was a true disagreement, which would amount to an absolute impasse.” Id. at 7-8. Additionally, the court explained that even if there was an error, it was not a type recognized as structural by the Supreme Court, referencing the list identified in State v. Minyard, 289 N.C. App. 436 (2023). 

Moving to (2), defendant argued his defense counsel committed an error under State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985), which would represent ineffective assistance of counsel. However, the court did not see a Harbison error, noting “defense counsel here never implied or mentioned any misconduct [by defendant]” while giving closing argument. Slip Op. at 15. Instead, the court held that “[defense counsel’s] statements cannot logically be interpreted as an implied concession of Defendant’s guilt.” Id.  

Finally, in (3) defendant argued that the indictment was flawed as it failed to state the assault caused “physical injury.” Id. at 17. The court explained that here, count VIII of the indictment alleged that defendant caused “serious injury” for the assault inflicting serious injury charge. Id. at 18. The court determined that the broader term was sufficient, as “it logically follows Defendant was noticed of his need to defend against an allegation that he caused physical injury as ‘serious injury’ is defined to include physical injury.” Id. at 21. 

Judge Murphy concurred in part and dissented in part by separate opinion, and would have held that the indictment for habitual misdemeanor assault in (3) was insufficient as physical injury and serious injury were not synonymous.  

In this Mecklenburg County case, defendant appealed his conviction of trafficking in fentanyl by possession, arguing error in the trial court’s failure to instruct defense counsel to call an out-of-state witness. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

An officer from the Cornelius Police Department observed defendant and a woman parked at a hotel in Cornelius, and as the couple left the car and headed to the hotel, the officer approached and inquired about the vehicle. Defendant eventually consented to a search of the vehicle that turned up fentanyl and other substances. Defendant was arrested, but the woman (a resident of West Virginia) was allowed to leave. At trial, defendant brought his dissatisfaction with his counsel to the court’s attention, and defense counsel acknowledged that he had disagreed with defendant about calling the woman to testify. The trial court explained that defense counsel could not subpoena a witness from outside the state to testify, and inquired about the dissatisfaction with defense counsel. After a discussion regarding defendant’s plans to hire alternative counsel, the trial court determined that defendant had not actually taken steps to hire another attorney, and that the disagreement with defense counsel was primarily over trial strategy. The trial court denied defendant’s motion to substitute counsel and the trial proceeded, resulting in defendant’s conviction. 

On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court should have either allowed substitute counsel or directed defense counsel to call the out-of-state witness. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that while “it is reversible error for the court to allow the attorney’s decision to prevail over the defendant’s wishes” when an absolute impasse has been reached, “not all tactical disagreements between a defendant and his or her attorney rise to the level of ‘absolute impasse.’” Slip Op. at 9-10. Here, the record reflected that defense counsel though the issue was resolved after their disagreement and did not realize that defendant still expected him to pursue securing the woman’s testimony. Since defendant could not demonstrate an absolute impasse, the trial court committed no error. The court also considered defendant’s motion to substitute counsel, concluding that it was abandoned as defendant offered no supporting arguments on appeal. 

In this Edgecombe County solicitation to commit murder case, the trial court did not err (1) in resolving the defendant’s request for substitute counsel; (2) by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence; and (3) by declining to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument. Additionally, (4) any error in the jury instructions for solicitation to commit murder was harmless.

(1) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for the appointment of substitute counsel where the record did not reflect an absolute impasse between the defendant and his counsel. The trial court engaged in a lengthy colloquy with the defendant and its findings and conclusions that the defendant was acting in a disruptive manner and expressing dissatisfaction with his counsel to derail the trial but was not at an absolute impasse were well-supported.

(2) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of solicitation to commit first-degree murder for insufficient evidence. Evidence at trial tended to show that the defendant had multiple conversations with another person, Capps, where he requested that Capps kill the defendant’s ex-girlfriend, Thomas; that the defendant gave Capps a map of Thomas’s house and the surrounding area; that the defendant provided detailed suggestions about how to kill Thomas; and that the defendant offered to kill Capps’s girlfriend if Capps killed Thomas. In the light most favorable to the State, this evidence was sufficient for the solicitation charge to be submitted to the jury.

(3) The trial court did not err by declining to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument that involved questioning the defendant’s credibility, characterizing the defendant as “angry” and “dangerous” among other things, stating that the evidence rebutted the presumption of innocence, and calling the jury’s attention to the specific deterrence a conviction would provide and the jury’s role as representatives of the community. In the context of the evidence at trial and relevant precedent, the arguments were not grossly improper.

(4) The Court of Appeals determined on plain error review that any error in the trial court’s jury instruction on solicitation to commit first-degree murder was harmless. The trial court instructed the jury using NCPI Crim. 206.17, which omits any mention of the elements of premeditation and deliberation, which distinguish first-degree from second-degree murder. The court reasoned that any error in the omission of these elements in the instruction was harmless on the facts of this case where the evidence showed that the defendant “solicited [Capps] to kill [Thomas] with malice upon [Capps’s] release from prison.” As the solicited killing necessarily would occur in the future and according to the defendant’s suggested plans, the evidence unavoidably established the defendant solicited a premeditated and deliberated homicide with the specific intent to kill. Thus, there was no indication that the jury would have reached a different verdict absent any error in the instruction, and the defendant’s ability to defend himself from the charge was not frustrated as his strategy was to deny asking Capps to kill Thomas regardless of premeditation, deliberation, or specific intent.

Judge Murphy concurred in result only and without a separate opinion with respect to the court’s conclusion that the trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument.

In this Pasquotank County case, the defendant was convicted at trial of statutory rape and abduction of a child. (1) During the first day of trial, the defendant complained about his attorney and claimed to have repeatedly fired him during the case. In response, the trial court allowed the defendant to express his concerns and attempted to address them. On the second day of trial, the defendant asked to represent himself, a request the trial court refused. On appeal, he argued that the trial court failed to inquire into an alleged impasse between trial counsel and the defendant and erred by not allowing him to represent himself. A unanimous Court of Appeals disagreed. While the defendant expressed some dissatisfaction with his attorney, his comments did not evince an absolute impasse in the case. In the court’s words:

Defendant’s complaints . . .were deemed misunderstandings that were corrected during the colloquies by the trial court. . .Defendant may have had a personality conflict with his counsel, and asserted he did not believe defense counsel had his best interest at heart. Defendant has failed to show an ‘absolute impasse as to such tactical decisions’ occurred during trial. Ward Slip op. at 9.

Thus, the trial court did not err by failing to more fully investigate the issue. The trial court also did not err by refusing to allow the defendant to proceed pro se after trial had begun, or by failing to conduct the colloquy for self-represented individuals in G.S. 15A-1242. While waiver of the right to counsel requires a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent waiver by the defendant, the right to self-representation may be waived by inaction, as occurred here. Further, without the defendant making a timely request to represent himself, the defendant is not entitled to be informed about the right to self-representation. The trial court did not err in disallowing self-representation, or in failing to make the statutory inquiry required for self-representation, under these circumstances. According to the court:

Defendant did not clearly express a wish to represent himself until the second day of trial. The trial court gave Defendant several opportunities to address and consider whether he wanted continued representation by counsel and personally addressed and inquired into whether Defendant’s decision was being freely, voluntarily, and intelligently made. Defendant’s arguments are without merit and overruled. Id. at 10-11.

(2) The defendant also argued that the trial court erred in allowing one of the State’s witnesses to use the words “victim” and “disclosure” when referring to the child victim in the case. Because no objection was made at trial, the issue was reviewed for plain error. The court noted that overuse of terms such as “victim” and “disclosure” may, in some circumstances, prejudice a defendant. Here, in light of the evidence at trial, any error did not rise to the level of plain error and did not prejudice the defendant.

(3) Trial counsel for the defendant was not ineffective for failing to object to the use of the terms “victim” and “disclosure” for similar reasons—the defendant could not show prejudice stemming from the use of these words, given the overwhelming evidence of guilt admitted at trial.

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