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., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021

Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant has the right to insist that defense counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. The defendant was charged with three counts of first-degree murder in this capital case. Throughout the proceedings, the defendant insistently maintained that he was out of State at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims when a drug deal went wrong. The defendant’s lawyer concluded that the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming and that absent a concession at the guilt stage that the defendant was the killer, a death sentence would be impossible to avoid at the penalty phase. The defendant was furious when told about this strategy. The defendant told counsel not to make the concession, pressuring counsel to pursue acquittal. However, at the beginning of opening statements in the guilt phase, defense counsel told the jury there was “no way reasonably possible” that they could hear the prosecution’s evidence and reach “any other conclusion” than that the defendant was the cause of the victims’ death. Although the defendant protested in a hearing outside of the presence of the jury the trial court allowed defense counsel to continue with his strategy. Defense counsel then told the jury that the evidence was “unambiguous” that “my client committed three murders.” The defendant testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi defense. In his closing argument, defense counsel reiterated that the defendant was the killer. The defendant was found guilty of all counts. At the penalty phase, defense counsel again conceded that the defendant committed the crimes but urged mercy. The jury returned three death verdicts.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in light of a division of opinion among state courts of last resort on the question whether it is unconstitutional to allow defense counsel to concede guilt over the defendant’s intransigent and unambiguous objection. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment was violated. It stated: “When a client expressly asserts that the objective of 'his defence' is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.” The Court distinguished Florida v. Nixon, 543 U. S. 175 (2004), in which it had considered whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant’s guilt at trial when the defendant, informed by counsel, neither consents nor objects. In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guilt phase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. The Nixon Court held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel’s proposed concession strategy, no blanket rule demands the defendant’s explicit consent to implementation of that strategy. The Court distinguished Nixon on grounds that there the defendant never asserted his defense objective. Here however the defendant opposed counsel’s assertion of guilt at every opportunity, before and during trial and in conferences with his lawyer and in open court. The Court clarified: “If a client declines to participate in his defense, then an attorney may permissibly guide the defense pursuant to the strategy she believes to be in the defendant’s best interest. Presented with express statements of the client’s will to maintain innocence, however, counsel may not steer the ship the other way.” It held: “counsel may not admit her client’s guilt of a charged crime over the client’s intransigent objection to that admission.” The Court went on to hold that this type of claim required no showing of prejudice. Rather, the issue was one of structural error. Thus, the defendant must be afforded a new trial without any need to first show prejudice.

The rule of State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985) that a criminal defendant suffers a per se violation of the right to effective assistance of counsel when counsel concedes the defendant’s guilt to the jury without the defendant’s prior consent applies to situations involving an implied admission.  The defendant was charged with habitual misdemeanor assault based on an underlying offense of assault on a female, assault by strangulation, second-degree sexual offense, and second-degree rape.  During a recorded interview with police that was played for the jury, the defendant made inculpatory statements indicating that he had “pushed [the victim],” was in a “tussle” with her, had “backhanded” and “smacked” her, and that she was visibly injured as a result.  During closing argument, defense counsel referenced these statements and referred to them as admissions while arguing that the jury should set aside its negative feelings about the defendant arising from that behavior to see that there was no basis for convicting him of rape, sexual offense, and assault by strangulation.  The jury found the defendant guilty of assault on a female and not guilty of all other charged offenses.  Following an extensive review of its precedent flowing from Harbison, the court explained that while this was not a case where defense counsel expressly asked the jury to find the defendant guilty of a specified offense, Harbison violations are not limited to such situations and also occur in situations where counsel “impliedly concedes his client’s guilt without prior authorization.”  The court said that counsel’s argument to the jury in this case was “problematic for several reasons,” including his attestations to the accuracy of the defendant’s admissions, his reminder to the jury that the victim was “hurt,” and counsel’s own opinion that “God knows he did [wrong].”  The court further noted that counsel specifically asked the jury to return a not guilty verdict for every charged offense except assault on a female, and characterized this conspicuous omission as implicitly conceding the defendant’s guilt on that charge in violation of Harbison.  The court concluded by emphasizing “that a finding of Harbison error based on an implied concession of guilt should be a rare occurrence,” and remanded the case for a determination of whether the defendant knowingly consented in advance to the admission.

Justice Newby, joined by Justice Ervin, dissented, stating the view that the jury argument in this case did not constitute the functional equivalent of an explicit admission and that a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel in a case like this requires proof of prejudice in accordance with Strickland.

The defendant was charged with first degree burglary after she was found inside the victims’ home in the early morning hours, having taken items from their cars and placed them inside a purse belonging to one of the homeowners. The defendant appeared to be impaired at the time she was arrested. She claimed during the encounter that, alternatively, she was an emergency medical worker, someone had chased her inside the house, and someone had invited her to the house.

(1) Before making an opening statement, defense counsel notified the court that he would be admitting all of the elements of the charged offense besides intent. The trial court asked the defendant whether she understood and agreed with this decision. She said she did. While defense counsel’s express or implied admission of the defendant’s guilt of a charged offense to the jury without the defendant’s consent is per se ineffective assistance of counsel, such an admission may be made with the defendant’s consent. Here, the trial court had an exchange with the defendant where she expressed her understanding and agreed to admit the elements of felony breaking and entering other than intent. Therefore, even assuming, without deciding, that defense counsel impliedly admitted that defendant was guilty of misdemeanor breaking and entering, that admission was consensual and did not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.

(2) An expert in forensic psychology testified for the defendant that she had diagnosed the defendant with post-traumatic stress disorder, severe alcohol use disorder, severe amphetamine use disorder, and a personality disorder. The expert testified that the defendant admitted to using methamphetamine daily and that such use can result in a methamphetamine-associated psychosis which presents with delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations. The expert characterized the defendant’s symptoms as congruent with this condition.

During closing argument, the prosecutor attacked the expert’s credibility, stating that “‘psychosis is quite convenient as an excuse’” and that the defendant “‘had Dr. James come and testify . . . with the end in mind.’” Slip op. at 14. The prosecutor argued to the jury that the expert was “‘paid by the defense, for the defense, to give good stuff for the defense’” and that “‘[y]ou get what you put out. What you put in, you get out.’” Id. After questioning the utility of Dr. James’s diagnoses of the defendant, the prosecutor remarked to the jury, “‘So I ask you to take that for what it is. At the end of the day, hired by the defense, for the defense, to say good things for the defense . . . .’” Id. The defendant did not object to the remarks. The court of appeals held that the prosecutor’s remarks were improper because they went beyond arguing that the expert witness was potentially biased, which is permissible. Instead, the prosecution impermissibly suggested to the jury that the defendant’s expert was paid to fabricate an excuse for her conduct and acts, regardless of the truth. The court explained:

By arguing that psychosis was an “excuse,” Dr. James testified with an end in mind, Dr. James was paid “to give good stuff for the defense,” and Dr. James was hired “to say good things for the defense,” the prosecutor inappropriately suggested that Dr. James “should not be believed because [s]he would give untruthful or inaccurate testimony in exchange for pay.”

 Slip op. at 14 (quoting, in last clause of last sentence, State v. Huey, 370 N.C. 174, 183 (2017)).

While these remarks were improper, the court of appeals held that in the absence of an objection by the defendant, they were not so grossly improper as to impede the defendant’s right to a fair trial. The court noted that similar remarks had been held not to amount to prejudicial error. Moreover, the court said it could not conclude that the remarks were so prejudicial as to merit a new trial considering the substantial amount of evidence tending to show that the defendant had the requisite intent for first-degree burglary.

(3) The Court vacated the civil judgment for attorney’s fees and remanded the matter to the trial court for a waiver by the defendant or a hearing on the issue. Although at trial the defendant stated she had no objection to the entry of a civil judgment, she did not know at that time the number of hours her appointed counsel planned to submit or what amount she would owe. She was, therefore, deprived of a meaningful opportunity to be heard before the judgment was entered.

In this sex offense case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial and instead giving a curative instruction to the jury in response to the State’s objectionable questioning of a witness.  Defense counsel did not admit the defendant’s guilt over his objection in violation of State v. Harbison or McCoy v. Louisiana by admitting an element of the charged offense in closing argument.

(1) Prior to trial in response to the defendant’s motion to exclude certain potential testimony, the State agreed to refrain from asking a detective about the victim’s grandmother allegedly pressuring the victim not to testify.  At trial, the State asked the victim about the manner in which she had been pressured not to testify and the defendant objected.  The trial court sustained the objection but denied the defendant’s motion for a mistrial, instead issuing a curative instruction striking the testimony from the record and from the jury’s consideration.  The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying a mistrial and properly exercised its discretion and cured any potential prejudice by issuing the curative instruction and polling the jury.

(2) Even if defense counsel admitted an element of second-degree forcible sexual offense by saying in closing argument that the State would have had a “slam-dunk incest case” if the defendant and the victim were related to each other and referring to an issue of consent under the “dirty and unpalatable” facts of the case, counsel did not violate the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights by admitting the defendant’s guilt without his consent.  The court explained that defense counsel’s statements may have constituted admissions of the “sexual act with another person” element of the crime, but did not constitute an admission of guilt because counsel “vociferously argued” that the defendant did not perpetrate the sexual contact “by force and against the will” of the victim, another element of the crime.  First addressing the issue through the lens of ineffective assistance of counsel, the court explained that an admission of an element does not constitute an admission of guilt and consequently counsel’s comments were not a Harbison violation.  The court then distinguished defense counsel’s admission of “at most” an element of the offense from the situation in McCoy v. Louisiana, ___ U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (2018) where defense counsel admitted his client’s guilt and found that no Sixth Amendment structural error occurred.

This Pitt County case involved charges of attempted first-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury (“AWDWIKISI”) and felony breaking or entering. Before trial, the defendant signed a document allowing his attorney to argue that he was guilty of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury (“AWDWISI”). This “Harbison acknowledgement” stated that the defendant understood his right to plead not guilty and have all issues in his case tried; that the defendant understood he was not required to concede guilt as to any offense; that he voluntarily admitted guilt to the assault while understanding the consequences of that admission; and that he authorized his attorney to argue his guilt of that offense to the jury. The trial court conducted a colloquy with the defendant where the defendant orally reaffirmed the terms of the document. At trial, defense counsel argued that the defendant was guilty of AWDWISI but lacked the intent to kill necessary to support the first-degree attempted murder (or AWDWIKISI). The jury convicted on all counts and the defendant appealed. He argued that his admission of guilt to the assault was not knowing or voluntary and that he therefore received ineffective assistance of counsel. He also claimed the trial court’s Harbison colloquy was deficient.

(1) Under State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985), it is per se ineffective assistance of counsel for defense counsel to admit a defendant’s guilt to an offense without the defendant’s consent. The defendant argued that his admission to the assault was effectively an admission to attempted murder. AWDWISI and attempted first-degree murder have different elements and AWDWISI is not a lesser-included offense of attempted first-degree murder. Thus, the admission to AWDWISI did not admit guilt to attempted murder. Further, the defendant knowingly and voluntarily admitted guilt to that assault, and his attorney never conceded guilt to attempted murder. The defendant therefore could not demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel.

(2) Before accepting an admission of guilt at trial, the record should reflect the defendant’s knowing and informed consent to the admission. Here, it did:

The record demonstrates that Defendant fully understood that trial counsel was going to concede guilt to AWDWISI, and the Defendant expressly consented to the concession. Further, Defendant specifically acknowledged that he understood the consequences of such admission. Id. at 11.

Thus, the trial court’s Harbison colloquy with the defendant was proper. In addition to his appeal, the defendant filed a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) in the appellate division. Denying that motion, the court found that no Harbison violation occurred and that the defendant could not therefore show the existence of a ground for relief under the MAR statute. The convictions were thus unanimously affirmed.

State v. Cook, 246 N.C. App. 266 (Mar. 15, 2016)

(1) In this murder case, counsel’s statement in closing argument did not exceed the scope of consent given by the defendant during a Harbison inquiry. In light of the Harbison hearing, the defendant knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily, and with full knowledge of the awareness of the possible consequences agreed to counsel’s concession that he killed the victim and had culpability for some criminal conduct. The court noted that counsel’s trial strategy was to argue that the defendant lacked the mental capacity necessary for premeditation and deliberation and therefore was not guilty of first-degree murder. (2) The Harbison standard did not apply to counsel’s comments regarding the “dreadfulness” of the crimes because these comments were not concessions of guilt. Considering these statements under the Strickland standard, the court noted that counsel pointed out to the jury that while the defendant’s crimes were horrible, the central issue was whether the defendant had the necessary mental capacity for premeditation and deliberation. The defendant failed to rebut the strong presumption that counsel’s conduct was reasonable. Additionally no prejudice was established given the overwhelming evidence of guilt.

In this murder case, trial counsel did not render ineffective assistance by failing to produce evidence, as promised in counsel’s opening statement to the jury, that the shooting in question was justified or done in self-defense. After the trial court conducted a Harbison inquiry, defense counsel admitted to the jury that the defendant had a gun and shot the victim but argued that the evidence would show that the shooting was justified. The concession regarding the shooting did not pertain to a hotly disputed factual matter given that video surveillance footage of the events left no question as to whether the defendant shot the victim. The trial court’s Harbison inquiry was comprehensive, revealing that the defendant knowingly and voluntarily consented to counsel’s concession. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that making unfulfilled promises to the jury in an opening statement constitutes per se ineffective assistance of counsel. And it found that because counsel elicited evidence supporting a defense of justification, counsel did not fail to fulfill a promise made in his opening statement. The court stated: “Defense counsel promised and delivered evidence, but it was for the jury to determine whether to believe that evidence.”

In an attempted murder case, counsel did not commit a Harbison error when he stated during closing argument: “You have heard my client basically admit that while pointing the gun at someone, he basically committed a crime: Assault by pointing a gun.” Because assault by pointing a gun is not a lesser-included of the charged offense, counsel’s statement fell outside of Harbison. 

In a murder case, trial counsel did not impermissibly concede the defendant’s guilt under Harbison. Although defense counsel never explicitly conceded the defendant’s guilt during trial, she did make factual concessions, including admitting that the defendant was present at the shooting and that he believed that he was participating in a plan to commit a robbery. The court found that it did not need to decide whether the factual admissions constituted an admission of guilt to first degree felony-murder given that the defendant expressly consented to counsel’s admissions. 

In an appeal from a conviction obtained in the Eve Carson murder case, the court held that counsel did not commit a Harbison error (unconsented to admission of guilt by counsel). Even taken out of context, the remark at issue did not even approach a concession of guilt.

The court dismissed the defendant’s Harbison claim without prejudice to it being raised in a motion for appropriate relief. During closing argument, defense counsel stressed that the defendant was a drug user, not a drug dealer. With regard to a charge of possession of drug paraphernalia, counsel stated “finding him guilty of the drug paraphernalia I would agree is about as open and shut as we can get in this case, but finding him guilty of the selling, you don’t have the seller.” The court noted that this statement conceded guilt. However, because of the incomplete record as to consent by the defendant, the court dismissed without prejudice. 

The court rejected the defendant’s Harbison claim (it is ineffective assistance of counsel for a defense lawyer to concede guilt without the defendant’s consent) where defense counsel raised the admission with the trial court before it was made and the defendant consented to counsel’s strategy.

Although concluding that counsel admitted the defendant’s guilt to the jury, the court dismissed the defendant’s Harbison claim without prejudice to his right to file a motion for appropriate relief on that basis in the trial court. Counsel conceded guilt to resisting a public officer and eluding arrest when he stated, among other things, that the defendant “chose to get behind the wheel after drinking, and he chose to run from the police[,]” and “[the officer] was already out of the way and he just kept on going, kept running from the police.” However, the record did not indicate whether the defendant had consented to these admissions.

The court dismissed the defendant’s Harbison claim without prejudice in order for it to be raised by way of a motion for appropriate relief in the trial division. As to a charge of resisting an officer, defense counsel had argued to the jury that “[T]he elements are there. They were officers of the law. They were discharging a duty of their office. We are not contending they were doing anything unlawful at the time and he didn’t obey. He delayed them. He obstructed them, he resisted them[.]” The court concluded that such statements cannot be construed in any other light than admitting the defendant’s guilt. However, the court determined, based on the record on appeal, it was unclear whether the defendant consented to this admission of guilt.

(1) Defense counsel did not commit a Harbison error during the habitual felon proceeding by admitting that the defendant had pled guilty to three felonies. Although defense counsel admitted the defendant’s prior convictions, he never argued that the jury should find that the defendant had attained habitual felon status and in fact suggested that the jury take certain mitigating factors into account. (2) Even if such an admission occurred, the defendant would not be entitled to relief because Harbison does not apply to a habitual felon proceeding. 

Because defense counsel admitted the defendant’s guilt to assault with a deadly weapon and involuntary manslaughter to the jury without obtaining the defendant’s express consent, counsel was per se ineffective under State v. Harbison, 315 N.C. 175 (1985). A majority of the panel distinguished the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004) (under federal law, when the defendant alleges ineffective assistance due to an admission of guilt, the claim should be analyzed under the Strickland attorney error standard), on grounds that Nixon was a capital case and the case before the court was non-capital. The majority further concluded that post-Nixon decisions by the North Carolina Supreme Court and the court of appeals required it to apply the Harbison rule.

No Harbison error occurred in this murder case where the defendant consented, on the record, to counsel’s strategy of admitting guilt.

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