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., 11/27/2021
E.g., 11/27/2021

Reversing a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals in this murder case, the court held that while certain statements made by the prosecutor in his closing argument were improper, the arguments did not amount to prejudicial error. The ADA opened closing arguments by saying “Innocent men don’t lie.” During his argument, the prosecutor used some variation of the verb “to lie” at least thirteen times. The prosecutor also made negative comments regarding defense counsel and regarding a defense expert witness. Regarding the defense expert, the prosecutor argued that the expert made more than $300,000 per year working for defendants, that he was not impartial and that “he’s just a $6,000 excuse man.” Defense counsel did not object and the trial court did not intervene ex mero motu. The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred by failing to intervene ex mero motu, concluding that the defendant’s entire defense was predicated on his credibility and on the credibility of his expert witness. The court reversed. It began by holding that there was “no doubt” that the prosecutor’s statements directed at the defendant’s credibility were improper. However it went on to hold that the statements were not so grossly improper as to result in prejudice, noting that the evidence supports the inference that the defendant’s testimony lacked credibility. For example, the defendant gave six different versions of the shooting, five to the police and one to the jury. The court concluded: “While we do not approve of the prosecutor’s repetitive and dominant insinuations that defendant was a liar, we do believe sufficient evidence supported the premise that defendant’s contradictory statements were untruthful.” The court also found that the prosecutor’s assertion that the defense expert was “just a $6,000 excuse man” also was improper in that it implied the witness was not trustworthy because he was paid for his testimony. While a lawyer may point out potential bias resulting from payment, it is improper to argue that an expert should not be believed because he would give untruthful or inaccurate testimony in exchange for pay. The court also noted that the prosecutor’s use of the word “excuse” amounts to name-calling, “which is certainly improper.” Finally, the court agreed that the prosecutor improperly argued that defense counsel should not be believed because he was paid to represent the defendant. Although ultimately concluding that it was not reversible error for the trial court to fail to intervene ex mero motu, the court added:

Nonetheless, we are disturbed that some counsel may bepurposefully crafting improper arguments, attempting to get away with as much as opposing counsel and the trial court will allow, rather than adhering to statutory requirements and general standards of professionalism. Our concern stems from the fact that the same closing argument language continues to reappear before this Court despite our repeated warnings that such arguments are improper. . . . Our holding here, and other similar holdings finding no prejudice in various closing arguments, must not be taken as an invitation to try similar arguments again. We, once again, instruct trial judges to be prepared to intervene ex mero motu when improper arguments are made. 

In this felon in possession of a firearm case, the court held that although some of the prosecutor’s statements were improper, they were not so improper as to deprive the defendant of a fundamentally fair trial.

     The court first determined that, in context, the prosecutor’s use of the term “fool” was not improper. The prosecutor’s remarks related to a gunfight and did not single out the defendant as a fool, but compared him to other fools who behave recklessly with firearms. Additionally there were no repeated ad hominem attacks on the defendant.

     Although the prosecutor’s expressions of personal belief were improper, they were not so grossly improper as to warrant reversal. Specifically, “[t]he prosecutor went too far when he asserted that the witnesses were ‘telling the truth.’” These statements improperly vouched for the truthfulness of the witnesses.

     Although the prosecutor’s statements as to the defendant’s guilt were improper, they did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial. The prosecutor proclaimed that the defendant was “absolutely guilty” and that there was “just no question about it.”

     The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the prosecutor made arguments on matters outside of the record and unsupported by the evidence when he remarked that the defendant told another person to get rid of the gun. The prosecutor’s assertion fairly summarized the evidence and argued a reasonable inference arising from it.

     The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the prosecutor impermissibly advocated that the jury’s accountability to the community should compel a guilty verdict. A prosecutor can argue that the jury is the voice and conscience of the community and ask the jury to send a message to the community regarding justice. A prosecutor may not ask or embolden the jury to lend an ear to the community, such that the jury is speaking for the community or acting for the community’s desires. Here, the prosecutor’s remarks were proper because they involved commonly held beliefs and merely attempted to motivate the jury to come to an appropriate conclusion, rather than to achieve a result based on the community’s demands. Additionally, the prosecutor did not urge that society wanted the defendant to be punished, but rather requested, based on the evidence, that the jury make an appropriate decision.

     The court concluded with this note:

While we reject Defendant’s arguments, we do not condone remarks by prosecutors that exceed statutory and ethical limitations. Derogatory comments, epithets, stating personal beliefs, or remarks regarding a witness’s truthfulness reflect poorly on the propriety of prosecutors and on the criminal justice system as a whole. Prosecutors are given a wide berth of discretion to perform an important role for the State, and it is unfortunate that universal compliance with “seemingly simple requirements” are hindered by “some attorneys intentionally ‘push[ing] the envelope’ with their jury arguments.” Jones, 355 N.C. at 127, 558 S.E.2d at 104. But, because Defendant has failed to overcome the high burden to prove that these missteps violated his due process rights, he is not entitled to relief.

In this murder case, the prosecutor’s statement that the defendant “can’t keep her knees together or her mouth shut” was “improperly abusive.” The defendant was charged with murdering her husband, and the State’s evidence indicated that she was having an affair with her therapist. However, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial--a “drastic remedy”--on grounds of the prosecutor’s improper statements. The prosecutor’s statements that the defendant had lied to the jury while testifying at trial were clearly improper, as was the prosecutor’s statement referring to the defendant as a narcissist. However, considering the overwhelming evidence of guilt, the prosecutor’s remarks did not render the trial and conviction fundamentally unfair and thus the trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu.

In a drug trafficking case, the trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu during the prosecutor’s closing argument. The prosecutor asserted: “Think about the type of people who are in that world and who would be able to testify and witness these type of events. I submit to you that when you try the devil, you have to go to hell to get your witness. When you try a drug case, you have to get people who are involved in that world. Clearly the evidence shows that [the defendant] was in that world. He’s an admitted drug dealer and admitted drug user.” Citing State v. Willis, 332 N.C. 151, 171 (1992), the court concluded that the prosecutor was not characterizing the defendant as the devil but rather was using this phrase to illustrate the type of witnesses which were available in this type of case.

Although reversing on other grounds, the court characterized the prosecutor’s closing argument as “grossly improper.” The prosecutor repeatedly engaged in abusive name-calling of the defendant and expressed his opinion that defendant was a liar and was guilty. The entire tenor of the prosecutor’s argument was undignified and solely intended to inflame the passions of the jury. The court noted that had the trial court not issued a curative instruction to the jury, it would have been compelled to order a new trial on this basis.

The trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu when the prosecutor referred to the defendant as a con man, liar, and parasite. The defendant was charged with obtaining property by false pretenses, an offense committed by deceiving or lying to win the confidence of victims. Given that the defendant lied to a church congregation in order to convince them to give him money, there was no impropriety in the State’s reference to the defendant as a liar and con man; the terms accurately characterize the charged offense and the evidence presented at trial. As for the term “parasite,” the court concluded: “this name-calling by the State was unnecessary and unprofessional, but does not rise to the level of gross impropriety.”

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