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., 06/26/2024
E.g., 06/26/2024

The defendant was charged with drug offenses. A lawyer was appointed to represent him. Immediately before trial, the defendant stated that he wanted to hire a lawyer instead and could afford to do so. A superior court judge determined that appointed counsel was providing effective assistance and denied the defendant’s request to retain counsel. The court of appeals found this to be structural error, as the issue was not whether the defendant was receiving effective assistance or was at an absolute impasse with his attorney, but whether he should be allowed the attorney of his choice. The court stated that “when a trial court is faced with a Defendant’s request to substitute his court appointed counsel for the private counsel of his choosing, it may only deny that request if granting it would cause significant prejudice or a disruption in the orderly process of justice.” The court noted that a last-minute request to change lawyers may cause such prejudice or disruption, but the trial judge did not make any such finding in this case as a result of analyzing the issue under the incorrect standard.

In this sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by failing to appoint substitute defense counsel. Absent a Sixth Amendment violation, the decision of whether appointed counsel should be replaced is a discretionary one for the trial court. Here, the defendant informed the trial court that his family was attempting to hire an attorney for him and that he was unhappy with the amount of contact and visitation trial counsel had with him before trial and with counsel’s discussion of a plea agreement with him. The court determined that this record did not suggest an abuse of discretion in connection with the denial of the defendant’s motion to discharge appointed counsel.

Where appointed counsel was allowed to withdraw, on the sixth day of a bribery trial, pursuant to Comment 3, Rule 1.16(a) of the N.C. Rules of Professional Conduct, the trial court was not required to appoint substitute counsel. Comment 3 states in relevant part:

Difficulty may be encountered if withdrawal is based on the client’s demand that the lawyer engage in unprofessional conduct. The court may request an explanation for the withdrawal, while the lawyer may be bound to keep confidential the facts that would constitute such an explanation. The lawyer’s statement that professional considerations require termination of the representation ordinarily should be accepted as sufficient.

Under G.S. 7A-450(b), appointment of substitute counsel at the request of either an indigent defendant or original counsel is constitutionally required only when it appears that representation by original counsel could deprive the defendant of his or her right to effective assistance. The statute also provides that substitute counsel is required and must be appointed when the defendant shows good cause, such as a conflict of interest or a complete breakdown in communications. Here, counsel’s representation did not fail to afford the defendant his constitutional right to counsel nor did the defendant show good cause for the appointment of substitute counsel. Nothing in the record suggests a complete breakdown in communications or a conflict of interest. Indeed, the court noted, “there was no indication that [counsel]’s work was in any way deficient. Rather, [his] withdrawal was caused by [defendant] himself demanding that [counsel] engage in unprofessional conduct. 

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying an indigent defendant’s request for substitute counsel. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to inquire into a potential conflict of interest between the defendant and counsel, noting that the defendant never asserted a conflict, only that he was unhappy with counsel’s performance.

The trial court did not err by denying defense counsel’s motions to withdraw and for the appointment of substitute counsel. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he and his trial counsel experienced “a complete breakdown in their communications” resulting in ineffective assistance of counsel. The court noted that in the absence of a constitutional violation, the decision about whether to replace appointed counsel is a discretionary one. Although the defendant expressed dissatisfaction with counsel’s performance on several occasions, he did not establish the requisite “good cause” for appointment of substitute counsel or that assigned counsel could not provide him with constitutionally adequate representation. The court concluded that any breakdown in communication “stemmed largely from Defendant’s own behavior” and that the defendant failed to show that the alleged communication problems resulted in a deprivation of his right to the effective assistance of counsel.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion to replace his court-appointed lawyer. Substitute counsel is required and must be appointed when a defendant shows good cause, such as a conflict of interest or a complete breakdown in communications. However, general dissatisfaction or disagreement over trial tactics is not a sufficient basis to appoint new counsel. In this case, the defendant’s objections fell into the latter category. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court failed to inquire adequately when the defendant raised the substitute counsel issue.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s request for substitute counsel where there was no evidence that the defendant’s constitutional right to counsel was violated. The defendant waived the right to appointed counsel and retained an attorney. The day after the jury was impaneled for trial the defendant requested substitute counsel, asserting that counsel had not communicated enough with him, that the defendant was unaware the case would be tried that day, and that he had concerns about counsel’s strategy, particularly counsel’s advice that the defendant not testify. None of these concerns constituted a violation of the defendant’s constitutional right to counsel.

In this Davidson County case, defendant appealed his convictions for two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, arguing error in (1) denying his motion for new counsel because his appointed attorney was blind, (2) failing to intervene ex mero motu during his cross examination, and (3) failing to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of common-law robbery for defendant’s second count. The Court of Appeals found no error with (1) or (2), but found plain error in (3), vacating the second count of robbery and remanding for a new trial. 

In December of 2016, defendant and an associate entered a gaming business and proceeded to rob the business, the manager on duty, and a patron. Defendant pulled a firearm and pointed it at the manager, demanding money, while his associate, who did not have a firearm, demanded money from the patron. When the matter came for trial in May 2022, defendant requested new appointed counsel because his attorney was blind. The trial court denied the motion and defendant proceeded with his appointed counsel. During the State’s cross-examination of defendant, the prosecutor repeatedly questioned defendant about exchanges he had with the court outside the presence of the jury, including profanity and accusations of racism, while defense counsel did not object to the questioning. At the conclusion of trial, defendant did not request an instruction on the lesser-included offense of common law robbery. 

Considering (1), the Court of Appeals first explained the two-part test for whether to grant new appointed counsel from State v. Thacker, 301 N.C. 348 (1980), and grappled with State v. Jones, 357 N.C. 409 (2003), ultimately determining that it would “purely review the trial court’s denial of Defendant’s motion for new counsel for abuse of discretion.” Slip Op. at 7. Noting that the only issue identified by defendant was that his counsel was blind, the court concluded “[d]efendant’s counsel is licensed to practice law in this state, and we cannot say the trial court abused its discretion by failing to replace him because of an immutable physical condition—a physical condition that is not limited to this case.” Id. at 9. 

Moving to (2), the court noted that it agreed with defendant that “the State’s cross-examination of him was inappropriate,” but that the issues did not rise to plain error. Id. at 10. Because ample evidence supported defendant’s guilt, including video and eyewitness testimony, the court could not conclude that the failure to intervene impacted the jury’s findings of guilt or the fairness of the trial. 

Finally, in (3), the court agreed with defendant, explaining that “a rational jury could have reasonably inferred that neither Defendant nor [his associate] used a dangerous weapon to threaten [the patron].” Id. at 15. Because this meant that a rational jury could have convicted defendant for common-law robbery instead of robbery with a dangerous weapon, the failure to provide an instruction for the lesser included charge was plain error, and this error justified a new trial on the second count of robbery.  

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