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., 09/30/2022
E.g., 09/30/2022

In this Durham County case, defendant appealed his conviction for felony animal cruelty, arguing that (1) the removal of the name of a horse from the indictment rendered it invalid, and (2) the prosecutor’s recitation of caselaw during closing argument represented gross impropriety. The Court of Appeals found no error and affirmed the conviction. 

In July of 2016, Durham County Animal Services responded to a report of several deceased horses on the property where defendant kept his horses. On the scene, Animal Services discovered the skeletal remains of three horses and one still-living horse, a chestnut mare, in severely emaciated condition. This horse was initially identified as “Diamond” in the indictment, but the prosecution successfully moved to strike the name from the indictment prior to trial. Defendant was found guilty of felony animal cruelty under N.C.G.S. § 14-360(b) in January 2021.

Reviewing defendant’s first argument on appeal, the Court of Appeals noted that under N.C.G.S. § 15A-923(e) an indictment may not be amended, but “surplus language which ‘in no way change[s] the nature or the degree of the offense charged’ may be stricken from an indictment.” Slip Op. at ¶20, quoting State v. Peele, 16 N.C. App. 227 (1972). The court explained that under N.C.G.S. § 14-360(b), the name of an animal is not considered an essential element of the crime, and applicable precedent established that it was acceptable to identify animals by general descriptions in indictments. Slip Op. at ¶24, citing State v. Credle, 91 N.C. 640 (1884). Because there was only one horse at issue in this case, and striking its name “Diamond” caused no confusion or difficulty for defendant when presenting his defense, the court found no error in striking the horse’s name from the indictment. 

The court next considered the prosecutor’s recitation of case law during closing argument. Noting that defense counsel did not object during trial, the court explained that defendant must show the remarks were “so grossly improper that the trial court committed reversible error by failing to intervene ex mero motu,” a heightened standard of review. Slip Op. at ¶27, quoting State v. Jones, 355 N.C. 117 (2002). The court emphasized that “the prosecutor’s statements must have been so improper that they ‘so infected the trial with unfairness as to make the resulting conviction a denial of due process.’” Slip Op. at ¶29, quoting Darden v. Wainwright, 477 U.S. 168 (1983). Based upon this high standard for relief, and the substantial evidence admitted at trial supporting defendant’s conviction, the court could not establish that defendant was deprived of a fair trial. 

The trial court abused its discretion when it allowed the prosecutor, in closing argument and over the defendant’s objection, to compare the defendant’s impaired driving case to a previous impaired driving case litigated by the prosecutor. The prosecutor discussed the facts of the case, indicated that the jury had returned a guilty verdict, and quoted from the appellate decision finding no reversible error. Reversed for a new trial.

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