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., 01/18/2022
E.g., 01/18/2022

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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