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

In this drug trafficking case, the trial court did not err by requiring the defendant to represent himself at trial. In September 2013, the defendant appeared before a Superior Court Judge and signed a waiver of counsel form. In December 2013 the defendant appeared before another judge and signed a second waiver of counsel form. On that same day, attorney Palmer filed a notice of limited appearance, limiting his representation of the defendant to pretrial case management. In September 2015 the defendant again appeared in Superior Court. Palmer informed the court that the State “got their labs back” and would be ready to set a trial date. The trial court informed the defendant that if he wanted a court appointed lawyer, he should ask now. Among other things, the trial court informed the defendant of the hazards of proceeding pro se. In response to the judge’s questioning, the defendant indicated that he would hire an attorney for trial. The ADA stated that the case would come on for trial in the middle of the following year. The judge told the defendant he had two months to hire a lawyer and scheduled him to return to court on November 5 with his lawyer to talk about trial date. He expressly warned the defendant not to return in November saying that he did not have a lawyer. On November 5, 2015 the defendant appeared in court without a lawyer. The judge again warned the defendant that it was his responsibility to hire a lawyer and of the hazards of proceeding pro se. On December 10, 2015 the defendant again appeared in court, indicating that he continued to have trouble hiring a lawyer. The court informed the defendant to report back on January 27, and warned the defendant that the trial was soon approaching. In January 2016, the defendant again appeared in court, this time with attorney Byrd. Byrd told the court he was not in a position to make an appearance for the defendant and asked for more time. The judge scheduled the matter to return in February. On February 15, 2016, the trial court reported to the defendant that Mr. Byrd was not ready to make an appearance in his case. He warned the defendant to make arrangements to hire Byrd or someone else because a trial date would be set on March 10. On March 28, 2016, the defendant appeared before a different judge. The State indicated it was ready to proceed to trial. After hearing from the defendant regarding his dealings with various lawyers over the past months, the trial court informed the defendant of his counsel rights and asked the defendant how he intended to proceed. During this colloquy the defendant indicated that he would represent himself. The trial court reset the matter for the next administrative session so that the senior resident judge could address the counsel issue. On April 7, 2016 the case came back in Superior Court. The State requested a July trial date and asked the court to address the counsel issue. The court summarized the prior discussions with the defendant and appointed standby counsel. Proceedings continued in this vein until the defendant’s case came on for trial August 30, 2016. The defendant appeared pro se with standby counsel. The defendant was found guilty and appealed, asserting a violation of his sixth amendment counsel rights. The court disagreed with the defendant’s assertion that the trial court did not adhere to the requirements of G.S. 15A-1242 in procuring his waiver. The court noted, in part:

The trial court gave Defendant years to find an attorney. At each stage the trial court advised and counseled Defendant about his right to an attorney including his right to appointed counsel. The trial court also repeatedly counseled Defendant on the complexity of handling his own jury trial and the fact the judge would not be able to help him. Finally, the trial court repeatedly addressed the seriousness of the charges and advised Defendant a conviction likely meant a life sentence. Despite this, Defendant proceeded to represent himself at trial.

Defendant’s assertion the trial court failed to take any measures to ascertain whether Defendant understood the various difficulties associated with representing himself is without merit. Our review of the record indicates the trial court advised Defendant he would have to adhere to rules of court and evidence. The trial court also informed Defendant the court would not assist Defendant, and Defendant was facing serious charges which could result in a life sentence upon conviction. The record also indicates Defendant repeatedly expressed his understanding of the trial court’s instruction on this issue. We conclude Defendant waived his right to court appointed counsel.

The court went on to hold that even if the defendant’s waiver of counsel was not knowing and voluntary, the defendant forfeited his right to counsel through extended delaying tactics. It explained:

First, Defendant waived his right to assigned counsel in 2013. The trial court repeatedly advised Defendant on the seriousness of the charges and informed Defendant a conviction could lead to a life sentence due to Defendant’s age. Time after time, Defendant stated he intended to hire his own attorney. Defendant made close to monthly appearances in court over a 10-month period, and consistently told the court he wished to hire his own attorney. During these appearances, the trial court asked Defendant at least twice if he needed appointed counsel. Defendant answered by claiming to have sufficient funds to hire an attorney. Additionally, the trial court continued Defendant’s case several times to give Defendant’s attorney time to prepare since Defendant claimed the attorneys he met with did not have adequate time to prepare for trial.

Because defendant engaged in repeated conduct designed to delay and obfuscate the proceedings, including refusing to answer whether he wanted the assistance of counsel, he forfeited his right to counsel. Citing State v. Leyshon, 211 N.C. App. 511 (2011), the court began by holding that defendant did not waive his right to counsel. When asked whether he wanted a lawyer, defendant replied that he did not and, alternatively, when the trial court explained that defendant would proceed without counsel, defendant objected and stated he was not waiving any rights. Defendant's statements about whether he waived his right to counsel were sufficiently equivocal such that they did not constitute a waiver of the right to counsel. However, defendant forfeited his right to counsel. In addition to refusing to answer whether he wanted assistance of counsel at three separate pretrial hearings, defendant repeatedly and vigorously objected to the trial court's authority to proceed. Although defendant on multiple occasions stated that he did not want assistance of counsel, he also repeatedly made statements that he was reserving his right to seek Islamic counsel, although over the course of four hearings and about 3½ months he never obtained counsel. As in Leyshon, this behavior amounted to willful obstruction and delay of trial proceedings and therefore defendant forfeited his right to counsel.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court failed to make the proper inquiry required by G.S. 15A-1242 before allowing him to proceed pro se, concluding that the defendant’s actions “absolved the trial court from this requirement” and resulted in a forfeiture of the right to counsel. As recounted in the court’s opinion, the defendant engaged in conduct that obstructed and delayed the proceedings.

The defendant forfeited his right to counsel where he waived the right to appointed counsel, retained and then fired counsel twice, was briefly represented by an assistant public defender, repeatedly refused to state his wishes with respect to representation, instead arguing that he was not subject to the court’s jurisdiction, would not participate in the trial, and ultimately chose to absent himself from the courtroom during the trial. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he should not be held to have forfeited his right to counsel because he did not threaten counsel or court personnel and was not abusive. The court’s opinion includes extensive colloquies between the trial court and the defendant.

(1) No violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel occurred when the trial court found that the defendant forfeited his right to counsel because of serious misconduct and required him to proceed pro se. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Indiana v. Edwards prohibits a finding of forfeiture by a “gray area” defendant who has engaged in serious misconduct. (2) The trial court did not err by finding that the defendant forfeited his right to counsel because of serious misconduct. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the misconduct must occur in open court. The defendant was appointed three separate lawyers and each moved to withdraw because of his behavior. His misconduct went beyond being uncooperative and noncompliant and included physically and verbally threatening his attorneys. He consistently shouted at his attorneys, insulted and abused them, and spat on and threatened to kill one of them. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that State v. Wray, 206 N.C. App. 354 (2010), required reversal of the forfeiture ruling.

The trial court did not err by allowing the defendant to proceed pro se where the defendant forfeited his right to counsel. In July 2007, the defendant refused to sign a waiver of counsel form. At a Jan. 2008 hearing, the court twice advised the defendant of his right to counsel and repeatedly asked if he wanted a lawyer. The defendant refused to answer, arguing, “I want to find out if the Court has jurisdiction before I waive anything”. Even after the court explained the basis of its jurisdiction, the defendant refused to state if he wanted an attorney, persistently refusing to waive anything until jurisdiction was established. At a July 2008 hearing, the defendant would not respond to the court’s inquiry regarding counsel, asserting, “I’m not waiving my right to assistance of counsel,” but also refusing the assistance of the appointed attorney. At the next hearing, he continued to challenge the court’s jurisdiction and would not answer the court’s inquiry regarding whether he wanted an attorney or to represent himself. Instead, he maintained, “If I hire a lawyer, I’m declaring myself a ward of the Court . . . and the Court automatically acquires jurisdiction . . . and I’m not acquiescing at this point to the jurisdiction of the Court.” The defendant willfully obstructed and delayed the proceedings and thus forfeited his right to counsel.

In this Stanly County case, defendant appealed the trial court’s ruling that he forfeited his right to counsel. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

Defendant pleaded guilty to first degree kidnapping, second degree rape, and second degree burglary in December of 2017. However, due to a sentencing error, defendant was brought back before the trial court in July 2020, and there he requested to set aside his guilty plea. At the same time, defendant’s first attorney requested to withdraw. This began a series of six appointed attorneys that represented defendant from July 2020 to July 2022. During this time, defendant was also disruptive to the proceedings, and at one point was held in contempt by the trial court. Eventually, due to defendant’s disruptions and dispute with his sixth appointed attorney, the trial court ruled that defendant had forfeited his right to court-appointed counsel. Defendant appealed.

The Court of Appeals explained that the trial court was correct in finding that defendant forfeited his right to counsel, pointing to defendant’s “insistence that his attorneys pursue defenses that were barred by ethical rules and his refusal to cooperate when they would not comply with his requests[,]” along with defendant’s conduct that “was combative and interruptive during the majority of his appearances in court.” Slip Op. at 10. These behaviors caused significant delay in the proceedings, and justified forfeiture of counsel. 

In this Davidson County case, defendant appealed his conviction for felony fleeing to elude arrest, arguing (1) error in finding he had waived or forfeited his right to counsel and (2) plain error by allowing the State to introduce foundationless expert testimony by a law enforcement officer about sovereign citizens. The Court of Appeals found no error or plain error. 

Defendant came to trial for fleeing from police officers on his motorcycle when they attempted to stop him. The trial court attempted a colloquy to determine if defendant desired or waived counsel, but defendant refused to answer and questioned the jurisdiction of the trial court. The trial court concluded that defendant waived his right to counsel and proceeded. Defendant continued to challenge the trial court and delay the proceedings, and was twice found to be in contempt by the trial court. During the testimony of one of the officers, the State asked about sovereign citizens and the officer offered a brief description of his understanding of a sovereign citizen, to which defendant did not object. Defendant was subsequently convicted, and appealed.

Taking up (1), the Court of Appeals first looked to State v. Blakeney, 245 N.C. App. 452 (2016), to summarize the methods in which a defendant may waive or forfeit counsel, including “a mixture of waiver and forfeiture” by misconduct. Slip Op. at 5. The court then considered whether defendant’s actions constituted waiver of counsel, noting the statutorily-required procedure in G.S. 15A-1242. Here, the record did not contain a signed waiver and certification by the trial court judge, but the court noted “[t]his absence in the record does not per seinvalidate Defendant’s waiver.” Slip Op. at 7. The court found the required elements from G.S. 15A-1242 in the transcript and concluded “[d]efendant clearly waived his right to further court-appointed counsel.” Id. at 8. The court then considered whether defendant forfeited his right to counsel, walking through applicable precedent. After reviewing notable cases in the area, the court explained that “[a] defendant may also forfeit their right to counsel by engaging in ‘serious misconduct.’” Id. at 15, quoting Blakeney at 460. Reviewing the current case, the court concluded that “[i]n addition to a waiver, Defendant forfeited his right to counsel.” Id. at 16. 

Reaching (2), the court noted that defendant did not object to officer’s testimony defining sovereign citizens at trial, meaning the review was plain error. Defendant failed to show that the testimony had a probable impact on the jury, meaning he could not demonstrate plain error. 

In this Onslow County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing error in (1) denial of his right to counsel, (2) denial of his motion to continue, and (3) allowing a witness to testify about unrelated allegations against him. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

After Thanksgiving in 2017, defendant borrowed his girlfriend’s car and drove from Florida to North Carolina, telling her that he was visiting family. After arriving in North Carolina, defendant contacted a prostitute and eventually killed her and buried her body in a remote area at the end of a dirt road. During the same December 2017 time period, defendant met with a different prostitute, who would later testify about how defendant took her to the same area, raped her, and stole all the money from her purse. When defendant indicted for murder in 2018, he was represented by his sister, a Georgia attorney who was admitted pro hac vice for the trial. Defendant also had a series of local attorneys represent him, all of whom withdrew due to disputes with defendant and his sister. During these disputes, defendant’s sister apparently filed several complaints with the N.C. State Bar against defense counsel and prosecutors. Eventually, the trial court revoked the sister’s pro hac vice admission due to her lack of experience and interference with other counsels’ ability to prepare. When the matter reached trial, defendant had another appointed counsel, but several days after opening statements, the appointed counsel moved to withdraw, explaining that defendant had asked her to stop representing him; she also informed the trial court defendant had implied she should withdraw for her own safety. The trial court conducted a colloquy with defendant, where defendant told the trial court he was not happy with the appointed counsel and understood that he would be forfeiting his right to an attorney. After the trial court allowed counsel to withdraw, the trial went forward with defendant representing himself; he did not present evidence, cross-examine witnesses, or provide a closing argument. Defendant was ultimately convicted, and subsequently filed a motion for appropriate relief (MAR). The trial court denied the MAR, finding that defendant forfeited his right to counsel by misconduct. Defendant’s appeals of his conviction and the denial of his MAR led to the current opinion.

Taking up (1), the Court of Appeals first explained the distinction between a knowing and voluntary waiver of counsel under G.S. 15A-1242, and forfeiture of counsel by misconduct, referencing State v. Blakeney, 245 N.C. App. 452 (2016). Although the record indicated that defendant signed a written waiver of counsel that was certified by the trial court, the waiver was not included on appeal. Despite this absence, the court explained that the missing waiver and certification document did not invalidate defendant’s waiver of his right to counsel. After determining the trial court clearly advised defendant of his rights and the consequences of waiving an attorney, the court found that defendant had “clearly waived and/or forfeited his right to further court-appointed counsel.” Slip Op. at 32. The court then explored the forfeiture ruling, noting that the N.C. Supreme Court had first recognized that a defendant could forfeit counsel in State v. Simpkins, 373 N.C. 530 (2020), and had expanded on the analysis in State v. Harvin, 382 N.C. 566 (2022), and State v. Atwell, 383 N.C. 437 (2022). Slip Op. at 35-36. After examining defendant’s conduct, including the interference from his sister and the seven attorneys representing him through the process, the court concluded defendant had committed “serious misconduct” sufficient to forfeit counsel, in addition to his “knowing and voluntary waivers of counsel.” Id. at 42. 

Turning to (2), the court explained that defendant filed his motion intending to replace the attorney he had just fired after the jury was already empaneled and the State was presenting its case-in-chief. Because no attorney could have adequately represented him in the middle of his trial, and defendant had waived and forfeited his right to counsel in (1), the court found no error in denial of the motion. 

Considering (3), the court established that the objection was not properly preserved for review, and that the review was under a plain error standard. The court then turned to the substance of the second prostitute’s testimony that defendant had raped her and the other details of the encounter, explaining that defendant asserted it was not relevant and inadmissible. Here the court disagreed, explaining that the details were admissible and relevant under Rules of Evidence 401 and 402. The court likewise found the testimony admissible under Rule of Evidence 404(b), explaining that the proximity and similarity of the events along with the prostitute’s testimony identifying defendant “far exceed” simply showing defendant had “the propensity or disposition to commit” the offense. Id. at 55. Finally, the court found no error with the trial court’s conclusion that the events described in the testimony were sufficiently similar and not too remote in time from the events of the crime to be considered prejudicial and inadmissible under Rule of Evidence 403. 

Holding that the defendant willfully obstructed and delayed court proceedings by refusing to cooperate with his appointed attorneys and insisting that his case would not be tried; he thus forfeited his right to counsel. The defendant’s lack of cooperation lead to the withdrawal of both of his court-appointed attorneys. His original appointed counsel was allowed to withdraw over disagreements with the defendant including counsel’s refusal to file a motion for recusal of the trial judge on grounds that various judges were in collusion to fix the trial. In his first motion to withdraw, the defendant’s next lawyer stated that the defendant did not want him as counsel and that he could not effectively communicate with the defendant. In his second motion to withdraw, counsel stated that the defendant had been “totally uncooperative” such that counsel “was unable to prepare any type of defense to the charges.” Further, the defendant repeatedly told counsel that his case was not going to be tried.

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