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., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021

The defendant was tried for armed robbery, conspiracy to commit armed robbery, and possession of a firearm by a person previously convicted of a felony. The trial was not over by Friday, and the trial judge called a weekend recess. The trial resumed on the following Monday, the jury convicted the defendant of all charges, and the trial judge sentenced the defendant. (1) The defendant argued that the trial judge failed to extend the session of court in which the trial began, violating the rule against judgments entered out of session. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument in reliance on G.S. 15-167, which allows a trial judge to extend a session if a felony trial is in progress on the last Friday of the session. The Court held that such an extension is valid when the trial judge announces a weekend recess without objection by the parties, as here. Although the trial judge was asked and declined to make written findings to support the extension, her decision not to make findings did not constitute a refusal to extend the session. (2) In response to written questions asked by the jury during deliberations, the trial judge sought clarification by writing out a short message and having the bailiff go to the jury room and read the message. The judge directed the bailiff not to communicate any other information, respond to questions by the jury, or remain for any discussion by the jury. The defendant argued that this procedure violated the requirements of G.S. 15A-1234 and G.S. 15A-1236, which require that responses to jury questions and additional instructions be in open court and which prohibit speaking to the jury. The Court held that assuming the trial judge committed statutory error, the defendant failed to show prejudice. The Court found that the trial judge’s message was clear and unambiguous, did not relate to guilt or innocence, and did not amount to an instruction to the jury. Absent evidence to the contrary, the Court stated that it would presume that both the bailiff and jurors understood and followed the judge’s directive to the bailiff to deliver the message and not to be present for or engage in any colloquy with the jury.

In this felony murder case, the trial court acted within its discretion by declining to answer a question from the deliberating jury. Robbery was the underlying felony for the felony murder charge. During deliberations, the jury sent a note with the following question: “Can this defendant be found guilty of the robbery charge and then found not guilty of the murder charge?” After hearing from the parties, the trial court declined to answer the question yes or no, instead telling the jury to read the written jury instructions that it had previously provided. The court noted that whether to give additional instructions to the jury is within the trial court’s discretion. Here, it was undisputed that the trial court correctly instructed the jury on all offenses and heard from the parties when the question was raised.

(1) In this murder and discharging a barreled weapon case in which the jury heard some evidence that the defendant was affiliated with a gang, the trial court did not deprive the defendant of his constitutional right to a fair and impartial jury by failing to question jurors about a note they sent to the trial court. The note read as follows:

(1) Do we have any concern for our safety following the verdict? Based on previous witness gang [information] and large [number] of people in court during the trial[.] Please do not bring this up in court[.]

(2) We need 12 letters—1 for each juror showing we have been here throughout this trial[.]

According to the defendant, the note required the trial court to conduct a voir dire of the jurors. The court disagreed, noting that the cases cited by the defendant dealt with the jurors being exposed to material not admitted at trial constituting “improper and prejudicial matter.” Here, the information about gang affiliation was received into evidence and the number of people in the courtroom cannot be deemed “improper and prejudicial matter.” (2) The trial court violated the defendant’s constitutional right to presence at every stage of the trial by failing to disclose the note to the defendant. However, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. (3) Although the court agreed that the trial court should disclose every jury note to the defendant and that failing to do so violates the defendant’s right to presence, it rejected the defendant’s argument that such disclosure is required by G.S. 15A-1234. That statute, the court explained, addresses when a trial judge may give additional instructions to the jury after it has retired for deliberations, including in response to an inquiry by the jury. It continued: “nothing in this statute requires a trial judge to respond to a jury note in a particular way.”

In this felony breaking and entering and larceny case the trial court did not violate G.S. 15A-1234 when responding to a question by the deliberating jury. The defendant argued that the trial failed to afford counsel an opportunity to be heard before responding the jury’s question about the difference between “taking” and “carrying away.” After receiving the question from the jury, the trial court told the parties that it was “going to tell [the jury] the definition of taking is to lay hold of something with one’s hands;” neither party objected to the proposed instructions. The trial court then instructed the jury on this definition, demonstrated the difference between the two terms with a coffee cup, and repeated the elements of felony larceny. Although the trial court did not inform the parties of its visual demonstration, the statute only requires that the trial court inform the parties “generally” of the instruction that it intends to give, as was done here.

Distinguishing State v. Hockett, 309 N.C. 794, 800 (1983) (trial court erred by refusing to answer deliberating jury’s question), the court held that the trial court properly answered the jury’s question about the State’s proof regarding the weapon in a robbery charge. 

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