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., 09/25/2021
E.g., 09/25/2021

Evidence withheld by the Government was not material under Brady. In 1985, a group of defendants were tried together in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia for the kidnaping, armed robbery, and murder of Catherine Fuller. Long after their convictions became final, it emerged that the Government possessed certain evidence that it failed to disclose to the defense. The only question before the Court was whether the withheld evidence was “material” under Brady. The Court held it was not, finding that the withheld evidence as “too little, too weak, or too distant from the main evidentiary points to meet Brady’s standards.” [Author’s note: For a more detailed discussion of the withheld evidence and the Court’s reasoning, see my colleague’s blog post here].

In this capital case, the prosecution’s failure to disclose material evidence violated the defendant’s due process rights. At trial the defendant unsuccessfully raised an alibi defense and was convicted. The case was before the Court after the defendant’s unsuccessful post-conviction Brady claim. Three pieces of evidence were at issue. First, regarding State’s witness Scott, the prosecution withheld police records showing that two of Scott’s fellow inmates had made statements that cast doubt on Scott’s credibility. One inmate reported hearing Scott say that he wanted to make sure the defendant got “the needle cause he jacked over me.” The other inmate told investigators that he had witnessed the murder. However, he recanted the next day, explaining that “Scott had told him what to say” and had suggested that lying about having witnessed the murder “would help him get out of jail.” Second, regarding State’s witness Brown, the prosecution failed to disclose that, contrary to its assertions at trial that Brown, who was serving a 15-year sentence, “hasn’t asked for a thing,” Brown had twice sought a deal to reduce his existing sentence in exchange for his testimony. And third, the prosecution failed to turn over medical records on Randy Hutchinson. According to Scott, on the night of the murder, Hutchinson had run into the street to flag down the victim, pulled the victim out of his car, shoved him into the cargo space, and crawled into the cargo space himself. But Hutchinson’s medical records revealed that, nine days before the murder, Hutchinson had undergone knee surgery to repair a ruptured patellar tendon. An expert witness testified at the state collateral-review hearing that Hutchinson’s surgically repaired knee could not have withstood running, bending, or lifting substantial weight. The State presented an expert witness who disagreed regarding Hutchinson’s physical fitness. Concluding that the state court erred by denying the defendant’s Brady claim, the Court stated: “Beyond doubt, the newly revealed evidence suffices to undermine confidence in [the defendant’s] conviction. The State’s trial evidence resembles a house of cards, built on the jury crediting Scott’s account rather than [the defendant’s] alibi.” It continued: “Even if the jury—armed with all of this new evidence—could have voted to convict [the defendant], we have no confidence that it would have done so.” (quotations omitted). It further found that in reaching the opposite conclusion, the state post-conviction court improperly evaluated the materiality of each piece of evidence in isolation rather than cumulatively, emphasized reasons a juror might disregard new evidence while ignoring reasons she might not, and failed even to mention the statements of the two inmates impeaching Scott.

Smith v. Cain, 565 U.S. 73 (Jan. 10, 2012)

The Court reversed petitioner Smith’s conviction on grounds of a Brady violation. At Smith’s trial, a single witness, Larry Boatner, linked Smith to the crime. Boatner testified that Smith and two other gunmen entered a home, demanded money and drugs, and then began shooting, killing five people. At trial, Boatner identified Smith as the first gunman through the door and claimed that he had been face to face with Smith during the initial moments of the robbery. No other witnesses and no physical evidence implicated Smith. Smith was convicted of five counts of murder. After an unsuccessful direct review, Smith sought post-conviction relief in the state courts. In connection with this effort he obtained notes of the lead police investigator. These notes contained statements by Boatner that conflicted with his testimony identifying Smith as a perpetrator. Specifically, they state that Boatner “could not . . . supply a description of the perpetrators other then [sic] they were black males.” The investigator also made a handwritten account of a conversation he had with Boatner five days after the crime, in which Boatner said he “could not ID anyone because [he] couldn’t see faces” and “would not know them if [he] saw them.” The investigator’s typewritten report of that conversation states that Boatner told the officer he “could not identify any of the perpetrators of the murder.” Smith argued that the prosecution’s failure to disclose the notes violated Brady. The State did not dispute that Boatner’s statements were favorable to Smith and that they were not disclosed. The sole question for the Court thus was whether the statements were material. The Court noted that evidence impeaching an eyewitness may not be material if the State’s other evidence is strong enough to sustain confidence in the verdict. However, it concluded the State’s evidence was not sufficiently strong in this case. Boatner’s testimony was the only evidence linking Smith to the crime. Also, Boatner’s undisclosed statements directly contradicted his testimony. Boatner’s undisclosed statements, the Court concluded, were plainly material. The Court went on to reject various reasons advanced by the State and the dissent regarding why the jury might have discounted Boatner’s undisclosed statements. Justice Thomas dissented.

Defendant filed an MAR challenging his 1993 convictions and death sentence for burglary, rape, armed robbery, and two counts of first-degree murder. The MAR alleged that the state failed to disclose material and exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady. At his original trial, the state’s primary evidence against the defendant included his fingerprint on a knife found next to one victim’s body, a partial DNA match between the defendant and a semen sample recovered from one of the victims, and testimony from a witness that the defendant spent a large amount of money on drugs shortly after the victims were robbed and murdered. The defendant made several discovery requests prior to trial in 1993, but the evidence at issue in this MAR was not produced. Part of the additional evidence was voluntarily provided to postconviction counsel in 2011, while other evidence was located by defense counsel in the attic of Whiteville City Hall. The undisclosed evidence fell into four categories: (i) forensic testing on additional hair, fiber, fingerprint, and blood samples that were not a match to the defendant; (ii) a prior interview with the testifying witness in which she said the defendant had only a small amount of money on him around the time of the crimes; (iii) reports about glass particles found in the defendant’s shoes that did not match the broken window glass at the crime scene, and additional cash found in the victim’s purse; and (iv) investigative materials on two undisclosed alternate suspects.

The trial court denied the MAR, finding that the defendant failed to show prejudice, and the defendant appealed. On review, the state Supreme Court considered how the undisclosed evidence could have been used to either negate or cast doubt upon the principal evidence offered by the state, and was “sufficiently disturbed by the extent of the withheld evidence in this case, and by the materiality of that evidence, that it undermines our confidence in the jury’s verdict.” The trial court’s denial of the MAR was therefore reversed, and the case was remanded with instructions to grant the MAR and order a new trial.

Justice Newby dissented, and would have held that the defendant failed to demonstrate a reasonable probability that the jury would have reached a different result even if the additional evidence had been made available at trial.

The defendant was found guilty by a Cleveland County jury of impaired driving and resisting a public officer and was found responsible for possession of open container. He appealed, challenging the denial of his motion to dismiss, the denial of his mid-trial motion to suppress, an evidentiary ruling, and alleging constitutional violations for lost evidence. The Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed.

(1) The defendant claimed there was insufficient evidence that he operated the vehicle while impaired. As to operation, the defendant was found asleep behind the wheel with the car running in the middle of the road and had a bottle of vodka between his legs. No passengers were present, and the defendant asked the officer if he could move the car, revving the engine several times. He also used the driver side door to exit the vehicle. This was sufficient to establish operation. “An individual who is asleep behind the wheel of a car with the engine running is in actual physical control of the car, thus driving the car within the meaning of the statute.”  As to impairment, while the defendant’s blood alcohol content was only 0.07, the defendant’s blood revealed the presence of marijuana, amphetamine and methamphetamine. In addition to the blood test, the defendant “failed” horizontal and vertical gaze nystagmus tests, refused a breath test, had a strong odor of alcohol, was “confused and disoriented,” and exhibited other signs of impairment. This was sufficient evidence of impairment.

The defendant also claimed there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction for resisting a public officer. Specifically, he argued that he was merely confused and in pain at the time of his interactions with the officers, and that this was the cause of his “negative interactions” with the officers. The court rejected this argument, noting: “The conduct proscribed under [N.C. Gen. Stat. §] 14-223 is not limited to resisting an arrest but includes any resistance, delay, or obstruction of an officer in discharge of his duties.” Here, the defendant committed multiple acts that obstructed the officer’s duties. The defendant would not roll down his window when asked by the officer, he repeatedly tried to start his car after being commanded to stop, he refused a breath test at least 10 times, and repeatedly put his hands in his pockets during the nystagmus testing after being instructed not to do so. He also refused to get into the patrol car once arrested and refused to voluntarily allow his blood to be drawn after a search warrant for it was obtained. In the court’s words:

Through these actions and his inactions, Defendant directly opposed the officers in their efforts to discharge their investigative duties of identifying him, speaking with him, and performing field sobriety tests. Thus, Defendant resisted the officers within the meaning of the statute.

The motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence of resisting a public officer was therefore properly denied.

The defendant also claimed his motion to dismiss for insufficiency as to the possession of open container of alcohol should have been granted. He pointed out that the bottle found in his car was not missing much alcohol and the officer admitted to emptying the bottle on the side of the road. Rejecting this argument, the court observed:

[T]he amount of alcohol missing from the container is irrelevant for purposes of this offense, because a contained is opened ‘[i]f the seal on [the] container of alcoholic beverages has been broken.’ Additionally, the fact that [the officer] poured out the contents of the container goes to the weight of the evidence, not its sufficiency.

The trial court therefore did not err in denying the motion for insufficient evidence for this offense.

(2) As to the suppression motion, the issue was preserved despite the motion being untimely because the court considered and ruled on the motion. The defendant argued that the forcible blood draw violated his rights to be free to unreasonable force. He did not challenge the validity of the search warrant authorizing the blood draw. Claims of excessive force are evaluated under the Fourth Amendment reasonableness standard. Graham v. Conner, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). “Determining whether the force used to effect a particular seizure is ‘reasonable’ under the Fourth Amendment requires a careful balancing of ‘the nature and quality of the intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interests’ against the countervailing governmental interests at stake.” Id. at 22 (citations omitted). Here, the officer had a valid warrant (obtained after the defendant’s repeated refusals to provide a breath sample), and the blood draw was performed by medical professionals at a hospital. Any acts of force by police to obtain the blood sample were the result of the defendant’s own resistance. The court observed:

Defendant had no right to resist the execution of a search warrant, and in fact, his actions rose to the level of criminal conduct under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 14-223, for resisting a public officer. . . Defendant ‘cannot resist a lawful warrant and be rewarded with the exclusion of the evidence.’

The force used to effectuate the blood draw was reasonable under the circumstances and did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The defendant also argued that his motion to suppress should have been granted for failure of the State to show that his blood was drawn by a qualified professional. G.S. 20-139.1(c) provides that doctor, registered nurse, EMT, or other qualified person shall take the blood sample. “An officer’s trial testimony regarding the qualifications of the person who withdrew the blood is sufficient evidence of the person’s qualifications.” Here, the officer testified that a nurse drew the blood, although he could not identify her by name and no other proof of her qualifications was admitted.  This was sufficient evidence that the blood was drawn by qualified person, and this argument was rejected.

(3) The trial court admitted into evidence the bottle found between the defendant’s legs at the time of arrest. According to the defendant, this was an abuse of discretion because the officers admitted to destroying the content of the bottle (by pouring it out) before trial. The defendant argued this was prejudicial and required a new trial. Because the defendant offered no authority that admission of the bottle into evidence was error, this argument was treated as abandoned and not considered.

(4) During the arrest, the stopping officer forgot to turn on his body camera and only began recording the investigation mid-way through. The officer also failed to record interactions with the defendant during processing after arrest in violation of department policy. The trial court found no constitutional violation. The defendant complained on appeal that the “intentional suppression” of this camera footage violated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and sought dismissal or a new trial. However, the defendant only argued the Fourteenth Amendment Brady violation on appeal. His Sixth Amendment argument was therefore abandoned and waived.

As to the alleged Brady violation, the defendant did not seek dismissal in the trial court. “We are therefore precluded from reviewing the denial of any such motion, and Defendant’s request that this Court ‘dismiss the prosecution against him’ is itself dismissed.” However, the defendant’s argument at suppression that the failure to record the blood draw violated due process and warranted suppression was preserved. Under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), suppression of material evidence relevant to guilt or punishment violates due process, regardless of the government’s good or bad faith. Here though, there was no evidence that the State suppressed anything—the video footage was simply not created. Brady rights apply to materials within the possession of the State. “Defendant essentially asks this Court to extend Brady’s holding to include evidence not collected by an officer, which we decline to do.” There was also no indication that the video footage would have been helpful to the defendant. The court therefore rejected this claim. “Although the officers’ failure to record the interaction violated departmental policy, such violation did not amount to a denial of Defendant’s due process rights under Brady in this case.”

The defendant was cited for misdemeanor driving while impaired on November 27, 2016. His attorney requested discovery in July 2017, specifically asking for dash cam and body camera footage. The defendant was subsequently indicted for habitual impaired driving and other traffic offenses based on the November 27, 2016 incident. In January 2018, the defendant's attorney again requested dash cam footage. The defendant’s attorney was informed in February 2018 that the dash cam video had been deleted from the local server, and the Highway Patrol was attempting to locate it from other sources. In March 2018, defense counsel was informed that the video had been purged and was not available for release.

The defendant moved to dismiss the charges based on the destruction of the dash cam video. The trial court granted the motion, concluding that the destruction of the dash cam video footage violated the defendant’s right to exculpatory evidence under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), and required dismissal of the charges. The State appealed.

The court of appeals noted that suppression of evidence favorable to an accused violates due process when the evidence is material to guilt or punishment, regardless of the good faith or bad faith of the prosecution. But when the evidence is only potentially useful, the State’s failure to preserve the evidence does not violate the defendant’s constitutional rights unless the defendant shows bad faith on the part of the State.

Though the trial court concluded that the destruction of the dash cam video footage was a Brady violation, it made no findings on what the dash cam video footage would have shown. Indeed, it could not have made such findings because there was no record of what the footage may have shown. The dash cam footage was not material exculpatory evidence; instead, it was only potentially useful. To establish a constitutional violation based on the destruction of potentially useful evidence, the defendant must show bad faith. The trial court erred by concluding that destruction of the footage warranted dismissal, regardless of bad faith on the part of the State. The court of appeals remanded the case to the trial court for a determination of whether the footage was destroyed in bad faith. A dissenting judge would have reversed the trial court on the basis that the evidence presented could not support a finding of bad faith.

In this assault on a government officer case, no Brady violation occurred when recordings from police body cameras were reviewed by the defendant’s original trial counsel and then destroyed pursuant to the police department’s evidence retention schedule. The defendant’s original trial counsel reviewed the video recordings but opted not to obtain copies or use the footage at the defendant’s district court trial. The defendant was convicted and appealed for trial de novo to superior court. In the meantime, the original recordings were destroyed in accordance with the police department’s evidence retention schedule. The defendant’s new trial counsel moved for a continuance to allow time for counsel to prepare a motion to dismiss, arguing that such a remedy was warranted because the recordings had been destroyed and thus were unavailable for use by the defense. The trial court denied the motion. The defendant was convicted and appealed. The court stated: “Defense counsel’s decision not to make or preserve copies of the videos — regardless of counsel’s reason for declining to do so — cannot serve as a basis for arguing a Brady violation was committed by the State.” 

Invoking Rule 2 of the NC Rules of Appellate Procedure, the court considered emails outside of the record and granted the defendants’ MAR, finding both a Brady violation and a Napue (failure to correct false testimony) violation. Specifically, the State failed to provide critical impeachment evidence regarding its star witness which would have supported the defendants’ assertion that the witness was a drug dealer. Likewise, the State failed to correct testimony by the witness that he was not a drug dealer. The emails in question related to an ongoing investigation of the witness revealing that he was in fact involved with drugs.

In this misdemeanor DWI case the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motions to examine the Intoximeter source code. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the source code was Brady evidence, reasoning that he failed to show that it was favorable and material. The court noted that the jury found the defendant guilty under both prongs of the DWI statute. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that under Crawford and the confrontation clause he was entitled to the source code. 

In a child sex case, the trial court erred by failing to require disclosure of material exculpatory information contained in privileged documents that were reviewed in camera by the trial court and pertained to the victim’s allegations. The documents contained “sufficient exculpatory material to impeach the State’s witnesses.” The court instructed the trial judge to “review the material de novo to determine, in his or her discretion, what material should be made available to Defendant.”

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