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., 09/21/2021
E.g., 09/21/2021
State v. Hunt, 367 N.C. 700 (Dec. 14, 2014)

The court affirmed per curiam that aspect of the decision below that generated a dissenting opinion. In the decision below, State v. Hunt, 221 N.C. App. 489 (July 17, 2012), the court of appeals held, over a dissent, that the trial court did not err by conducting a voir dire when an issue of attorney conflict of interest arose and denying the defendant’s mistrial motion. A dissenting judge believed that the trial court erred by failing to conduct an evidentiary hearing to determine whether defense counsel’s conflict of interest required a mistrial.

State v. Choudhry, 365 N.C. 215 (Aug. 26, 2011)

Although the trial court’s inquiry of the defendant was insufficient to assure that the defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to conflict free counsel, because the defendant failed to show that counsel’s performance was adversely affected by the conflict, he is not entitled to relief. At the defendant’s noncapital first-degree murder trial, the prosecution informed the trial court that defense counsel had previously represented a State’s witness, Michelle Wahome, who was the defendant’s girlfriend at the time of the incident in question and with whom the defendant had a child. Specifically, defense counsel had represented Wahome with respect to charges arising out of an incident at a shopping mall. The charges were reduced to common law forgery and although the defendant had not been charged in the matter, both he and Wahome appeared in the video surveillance and the items in question were men’s clothing. Defense counsel indicated that the prior representation would not impair his ability to represent the defendant and that he did not plan to question Wahome about the earlier incident. The trial court then informed the defendant that defense counsel had previously represented Wahome, a witness for the State and asked the defendant if he had any concerns about counsel’s ability appropriately to represent him, if he was satisfied with counsel’s representation, and if he desired to have counsel continue his representation. The defendant said that he had no concerns about counsel’s representation and gave an affirmative answer to each remaining question. The defendant was convicted and appealed. In a split decision, the court of appeals found no error. State v. Choudhry, 206 N.C. App. 418, 430 (Aug. 17, 2010). The dissenting judge contended that the trial court erred by failing to fully inform the defendant of the consequences of the potential conflict and that a remand was required. The supreme court determined that because the prosecutor brought a potential conflict to the trial judge’s attention, the trial judge was obligated to make an inquiry. The court concluded that because the trial court did not specifically explain the limitations that the conflict imposed on defense counsel’s ability to question Wahome regarding her earlier criminal charges or indicate that he had given the defendant such an explanation, the trial judge failed to establish that the defendant had sufficient understanding of the implications of counsel’s prior representation of Wahome to ensure a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of the potential conflict of interest. However, it went on to conclude that in light of counsel’s effective cross-examination of Wahome, the defendant failed to demonstrate an actual conflict of interest adversely affecting performance and thus was not entitled to relief.

State v. Phillips, 365 N.C. 103 (June 16, 2011)

The trial court did not err by failing to inquire into defense counsel’s alleged conflict of interest and by failing to obtain a waiver from the defendant of the right to conflict-free counsel. According to the defendant, the conflict arose when it became apparent that counsel might have to testify as a witness. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his claim should be assessed under the conflict of interest ineffective assistance of counsel standard rather than the standard two-prong Strickland analysis. It noted that the conflict of interest standard generally applies to conflicts that arise from multiple or successive representation and it deferred to defense counsel’s conclusion that no conflict existed in the case at hand. Applying Strickland, the court rejected the defendant’s claim, concluding that even if counsel’s conduct fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, no prejudice occurred.

In this Lincoln County case, the defendant’s trial counsel also represented the City of Lincolnton. Lincolnton police officers investigated and charged the defendant and testified at his trial. After the charge conference, the defendant expressed concerns about his attorney’s potential conflict of interest. Trial counsel responded that he had not communicated with the police department about the case and that he believed no conflict of interest existed. The defendant acknowledged he had been aware of this issue for at least one year. When asked by the trial court if he wished to question his attorney on the issue, the defendant declined. The trial court made no factual findings or legal conclusions on the matter. The jury returned guilty verdicts and the defendant appealed, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel based on his trial counsel’s conflict of interest.

The defendant’s right to counsel includes the right to conflict-free representation. Looking to the Rules of Professional Conduct for guidance, the court observed:

[A] conflict of interest that cannot be waived arises where law enforcement officers testify against a defendant and the defendant’s appointed counsel also advises the officers’ department or its members and, in effect, represents the officers who are prosecuting witnesses against the defendant. Slip op. at 8.

The trial court erred in failing to investigate the potential conflict of interest claim more thoroughly. While trial counsel represented to the court that he had no contact with the police department about this case, “the trial court failed to determine the extent to which [the defense attorney’s] role as city attorney required him to advise or represent the Lincolnton Police Department or its individual officers.” Id. This information was necessary to determine whether a conflict existed. The trial court also erred in placing the burden on the defendant to ask questions about the potential conflict:

[W]hen a trial court is made aware of a possible conflict of interest prior to the conclusion of a trial, ‘the trial court must ‘take control of the situation.’’ Where the trial court ‘knows or reasonably should know’ of ‘a particular conflict,’ that court must inquire ‘into the propriety of multiple representation.’ Id. at 5 (citations omitted).

The matter was therefore remanded for the trial court to conduct a proper inquiry into the potential conflict of interest. If the trial court determines that defense counsel actually represented or advised the police department or its officers “at any relevant time,” the defendant would be entitled to a new trial based on the non-waivable conflict of interest. If no conflict of interest is found to have existed, the defendant’s convictions will remain intact.

Addressing the merits of an IAC claim raised in a MAR, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that attorney Warmack provided ineffective assistance of counsel at an evidentiary remand hearing because of a dual representation conflict arising from having previously represented codefendant Swain. With respect to issues involving successive or simultaneous representation of clients in related matters, a defendant who raises no objection at trial must demonstrate that an actual conflict of interest adversely affected his lawyer’s performance. Here, the trial court’s unchallenged findings concluded, in part, that the defendant presented no evidence that Warmack’s representation of the defendant was in any way influenced by his prior representation of codefendant Swain.

The trial court erred by ordering, under threat of contempt, that defense counsel’s legal assistant appear as a witness for the State. The State served the assistant with a subpoena directing her to appear to testify on the weeks of Friday, November 8, 2013, Monday, December 2, 2013, and Monday, January 13, 2014. However, the trial did not begin on any of the dates listed on the subpoena; rather, it began on Monday, November 18, 2013 and ended on Wednesday, November 20, 2013. Because the assistant had not been properly subpoenaed to appear on Tuesday, November 19th, the trial court erred by ordering, under threat of contempt, that she appear on that day as a witness for the State. The court went on to find the error prejudicial and ordered a new trial. The court held that if on re-trial the assistant again testifies for the State, the trial court must conduct a hearing to determine whether an actual conflict of interest exists that denies the defendant the right to effective assistance of counsel.

(1) Even if counsel provided deficient performance by informing the trial court, with the defendant’s consent, that the defendant wanted to go to trial and “take the chance that maybe lightning strikes, or I get lucky, or something,” no prejudice was shown. (2) The court declined the defendant’s invitation to consider his ineffective assistance claim a conflict of interest that was per se prejudicial, noting that the court has limited such claims to cases involving representation of adverse parties.

State v. King, 235 N.C. App. 187 (July 15, 2014)

No error occurred when the trial court denied defense counsel’s request for an overnight recess after having to defend himself against the State’s motion for contempt based on an allegation that counsel violated the court’s order regarding the rape shield rule in connection with his examination of the victim in this child sexual abuse case. After the trial court denied the State’s motion, defense counsel requested an overnight recess to “calm down” about the contempt motion. The trial court denied this request but at 11:38 am called a recess until 2 pm that day. The court rejected the defendant’s arguments that there was a conflict of interest between the defendant and defense counsel and that the trial court’s denial of the overnight recess resulted in ineffective assistance of counsel. 

The defendant was entitled to a new trial where the trial court proceeded to trial over the defendant’s objection to continued representation by appointed counsel who had previously represented one of the State’s witnesses. At a pretrial hearing the State informed the trial court that defense counsel had previously represented Mr. Slade, who the State intended to call as a trial witness. The defendant told the trial court that he was concerned about a conflict of interest and asked for another lawyer. Slade subsequently waived any conflict and the State Bar advised the trial court that since Slade had consented “the lawyer’s ability to represent the current client is not affected” and that the current client’s consent was not required. The trial court conducted no further inquiry. The court held that the trial court erred by failing to make any inquiry into the nature and extent of the potential conflict and whether the defendant wished to waive the conflict. It concluded:

[W]e believe that Defendant . . . was effectively forced to go to trial while still represented by his trial counsel, who had previously represented one of the State’s witnesses and who acknowledged being in the possession of confidential information which might be useful for purposes of cross-examining that witness, despite having clearly objected to continued representation by that attorney. As a result, given that prejudice is presumed under such circumstances, Defendant is entitled to a new trial.

The trial court did not err by removing the defendant’s retained counsel, Wayne Eads, based on the possibility that Eads might be called to testify as a witness at trial. The defendant was charged with attempted murder and felony assault. The defendant was having an affair with the victim’s wife and the victim’s wife had discussed with the defendant the possibility of leaving her husband. Prior to the incident at issue, the victim’s wife also communicated with Eads, who was the defendant’s best friend and attorney, about her relationship with the defendant and the consequences of a divorce. The trial court’s action was proper given “a serious potential for conflict” based on Eads’ relationship with the defendant and communication with the victim’s wife. The court stated:

Eads was aware of personal and sensitive information, including the nature of their affair, which was a major factor leading to the shooting. Had Eads remained as defendant’s counsel, he might have been called to testify, at which time he might have been asked to disclose confidential information regarding the relationship between defendant and [the victim’s wife], which information may have divulged defendant’s motive for shooting [the victim], which in turn could compromise his duty of loyalty to his client.

The court went on to conclude that competent evidence supported the trial court’s conclusion that Eads was likely to be a necessary witness at trial and that none of the exceptions to Rule 3.7 of the N.C. Revised Rules of Professional Conduct applied.

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