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., 01/28/2023
E.g., 01/28/2023

In this Pasquotank County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing the trial court erred in several matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic and by admitting irrelevant and hearsay testimony. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In May of 2018, defendant was in an altercation in Elizabeth City; defendant pulled a gun as the victim ran away and shot him several times in the back. The matter reached trial on January 11, 2021, after delays related to COVID-19. On the first day of trial, defense counsel made a motion to continue, arguing that she did not feel safe proceeding due to COVID-19. The trial court denied the motion to continue. The trial was subject to capacity limitations and modified jury selection procedures to limit the proximity of those in the courtroom, leading to additional issues on appeal.

Defendant first argued that the trial court lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to hear the case, pointing to the emergency orders from then-Chief Justice Beasley issued on December 14, 2020, forbidding jury trials for the next thirty days unless a jury was already empaneled. The Court of Appeals noted that Chief Justice Newby was sworn in on January 1, 2021, and a commission to the superior court hearing the matter was issued on January 5. The new chief justice also issued an order effective January 14, 2021, allowing the emergency directives in question to expire. The court found that the emergency order did not remove the superior court’s jurisdiction, and “[t]he 5 January 2021 AOC commission for this session and the 13 January 2021 order from Chief Justice Newby effectively repudiated and superseded the 14 December 2020 order.” Slip Op. at 9.

Moving to defendant’s trial-related issues, the court first considered denial of the motion to continue, explaining that defendant could not show prejudice justifying a new trial because defense counsel “was legally prepared to try the case, but was solely worried about potential COVID-19 risks,” and defendant made “no showing of any deficient representation throughout trial.” Id. at 14. The court next considered the argument that defense counsel should have been barred under Emergency Directive 2 from the December 14, 2020, emergency orders, as this order forbid persons likely exposed to COVID-19 from entering the courthouse. Rejecting this argument, the court noted that defense counsel did not identify her likely exposure to the clerk or mention it in her motion to continue, meaning she never presented the issue to the court for consideration prior to her motion. Examining defendant’s argument that the courtroom closure for capacity reasons violated his right to a public trial, the court explained that he failed to preserve this issue on appeal and declined to apply Rule of Appellate Procedure 2 to revive it. Finally, the court rejected defendant’s challenge to jury selection, holding:

While the jury selection procedure the court utilized here may have varied the express requirement of N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-1214(d) requiring the State to pass a full panel of twelve prospective jurors . . . [d]efendant was not forced to accept any undesirable juror as a result of the passing of less than twelve prospective jurors during jury selection procedure under these circumstances. Id. at 21-22, citing State v. Lawrence, 365 N.C. 506 (2012).

The court last turned to defendant’s challenge to the admission of Exhibits 54, 55, and 57. Exhibits 54 and 55 were Facebook messages, and Exhibit 57 was documentation of a handgun purchase. Noting the exhibits “were probative to issues of [d]efendant’s guilt, [d]efendant’s opportunity to acquire a weapon, and [d]efendant’s possible motive for the killing,” the court rejected defendant’s challenge to relevancy. Slip Op. at 25. The court then looked at the admission of Exhibit 54, a Facebook message exchange between defendant’s sister and the victim’s sister describing a dispute between defendant and the victim over payment for a gun. The court found no error in admitting this exchange, and noted that North Carolina law “permits declarations of one person to be admitted into evidence for the purpose of showing that another person has knowledge or notice of the declared facts and to demonstrate his particular state of mind.” Id. at 27, quoting State v. Swift, 290 N.C. 383, 393 (1976).

 

In this Guilford County case, the trial judge improperly expressed personal opinion and injected a discussion of race in remarks to the venire during jury selection. The defendant was charged with fleeing to elude and obtaining the status of habitual felon, along with other traffic offenses. During jury voir dire, a potential juror indicated that his religious beliefs as a non-denominational Baptist prevented him from judging the defendant. In response, the trial court stated:

Okay. I’m going -- we’re going to excuse him for cause, but let me just say this, and especially to African Americans: Everyday we are in the newspaper stating we don’t get fairness in the judicial system. Every single day. But none of us -- most African Americans do not want to serve on a jury. And 90 percent of the time, it’s an African American defendant. So we walk off these juries and we leave open the opportunity for -- for juries to exist with no African American sitting on them, to give an African American defendant a fair trial. So we cannot keep complaining if we’re going to be part of the problem. Now I grew up Baptist, too. And there’s nothing about a Baptist background that says we can’t listen to the evidence and decide whether this gentleman, sitting over at this table, was treated the way he was supposed to be treated and was given -- was charged the way he was supposed to be charged. But if your -- your non-denomina[tional] Baptist tells you you can’t do that, you are now excused. Campbell Slip op. at 3.

The defendant was convicted at trial of the most serious offenses and sentenced to a minimum term of 86 months in prison. On appeal, he argued that his right to an impartial judge was violated, resulting in structural error.

To the extent this argument was not preserved at trial or by operation of law, the defendant sought to invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to obtain review. The State joined the request to suspend the normal preservation rules, and a majority of the court agreed to do so. The State further agreed that the trial judge’s comments amounted to structural error, requiring a new trial without regard to any prejudice to the defendant. The majority of the panel again agreed. In its words:

Here, the trial court’s interjection of race and religion could have negatively influenced the jury selection process. After observing the trial court admonish [the excused juror] in an address to the entire venire, other potential jurors—especially African American jurors—would likely be reluctant to respond openly and frankly to questions during jury selection regarding their ability to be fair and neutral, particularly if their concerns arose from their religious beliefs. Id. at 9.

The convictions were therefore vacated, and the matter remanded for a new trial.

Judge Dillon dissented. He would have declined to invoke Rule 2 and would have held that the trial judge’s comments, while inappropriate, did not amount to structural or otherwise reversible error.

In a first-degree felony murder case, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to strike the initial jury panel and the Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for a proper Batson hearing consistent with State v. Hobbs, 374 N.C. 345 (2020).  Before jury selection, the clerk provided the State and the defendant with a list of the first 12 prospective jurors to be called from the master jury list – 11 had surnames beginning with the letter “B” and the twelfth had a surname beginning with the letter “C.”  After defense counsel’s oral motion on the first day of voir dire to strike the first 12 prospective jurors based on concerns about whether they had been randomly selected in accordance with relevant statutes was denied, defense counsel made a motion in writing on the second day of voir dire to strike the jury panel for lack of randomness.  The trial court denied that written motion.  On the third day of voir dire, the trial court summarily denied the defendant’s Batson challenge to the State’s exercise of a peremptory strike against an African-American prospective juror.  With respect to the denial of the written motion to strike the jury panel, the Court of Appeals determined that even if the mandatory statutory procedure for calling jurors had been violated, the defendant did not show that any such violation was prejudicial because he did not strike any of the first 12 jurors for cause or with a peremptory challenge.  With respect to the Batson challenge, the court reviewed Hobbs, other precedent, and the proceedings in the trial court on its way to determining that the trial court erred by summarily denying the challenge without making specific findings of fact and conclusions of law.  The court remanded the case with instructions to the trial court to conduct a proper Batson hearing.

Although the trial court erred by failing to follow the statutory procedure for jury selection in G.S. 15A-1214 (specifically, that the prosecutor must pass 12 jurors to the defense), the defendant failed to show prejudice. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the error was reversible per se.

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