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., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021

The defendant was indicted for one count of second-degree murder arising out of a fight at a party in which the victim was stabbed and later died. After a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. The jury indicated that the verdict was unanimous, and assented to the verdict again when the jurors were individually polled. However, during the judge’s parting remarks to the jury and before the judgment was entered, a majority of the jurors disclosed that they did not believe the state’s witnesses and they were not sure of the defendant’s guilt, but they voted guilty anyway because “that man died, so someone needs to go to prison.” The jurors’ comments were not recorded at the time, but were reconstructed on the record during a conference in chambers the next day. The defense moved to set aside the verdict, based on the jurors’ statements and other grounds, and the motion was denied. The defendant appealed, arguing that jury’s disregard of the court’s instructions on reasonable doubt constituted structural error.

The Court of Appeals conducted a de novo review and unanimously agreed, reversing the conviction. The court explained that structural error is a rare form of constitutional error that occurs when there is a defect in the trial mechanism that is so serious that the trial cannot reliably serve as a vehicle for determining guilt or innocence. U.S. Supreme Court precedent has established that only a limited number of errors rise to the level of being structural error, but the appellate court held that “the circumstances here present the same type of constitutional error present in some of those cases” because the defendant has a constitutional right to a verdict based upon a determination of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. On appeal, the defendant was not required to demonstrate prejudice resulting from this type of error; instead, the burden was on the state to demonstrate that the structural error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, which the state failed to do. 

The appellate court rejected the state’s argument that this analysis was an impermissible inquiry into the validity of jury’s verdict, in violation of Rule 606. In this case, the trial judge had immediate concerns about the jury’s verdict and discussed it with them in open court, confirming that a majority of the jurors had voted for guilt despite their doubts about the defendant’s guilt. Additionally, the jury’s misconduct went “to the very heart of the defendant’s right to a presumption of innocence and the requirement that he be convicted only upon proof ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’” In the court’s view, these facts distinguished the case from the type of post-trial “inquiry” based on “mere suspicion” contemplated by Rule 606 and addressed in prior cases.

The defendant had also filed an MAR within 10 days after the trial, raising similar arguments to those made on appeal. The trial court denied the MAR, and the defendant appealed that denial. The appellate court vacated the ruling denying the MAR for the reasons given above, but also clarified that the portion of the trial court’s order which purported to bar the defendant from raising arguments in a future MAR was erroneous.  G.S. 15A-1419(a) provides for denial of a motion if the defendant “attempts to raise an issue in a MAR which has previously been determined if he was in the position to raise it in a prior motion or appeal,” but the statute  “does not give a trial court authority to enter a gatekeeper order declaring in advance that a defendant may not, in the future, file an MAR; the determination regarding the merits of any future MAR must be decided based upon that motion.”

Defendants Molly Martens Corbett (“Molly”) and Thomas Michael Martens (“Tom”), daughter and father, were convicted of second degree murder in the death of Molly’s husband, Jason Corbett (“Jason”). Evidence at trial established that Tom attempted to stop Jason from choking Molly by hitting Jason with an aluminum baseball bat. Molly also hit Jason with a brick paver. Jason’s skull was fractured from multiple blows and he died at the scene. Jason’s children from a previous marriage, Jack and Sarah Corbett, ages 11 and 8, were at home and sleeping at the time of the altercation. Jack and Sarah’s mother had died unexpectedly when they were very young, and they considered Molly to be their mother.

(1) Defendants argued that the trial court abused its discretion by denying their Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR), as well as their request for an evidentiary hearing, because competent evidence demonstrated that certain jurors “committed gross and pervasive misconduct in their private discussions of the case”; jurors engaged in “private discussions” amongst themselves prior to deliberations; and several jurors’ statements during post-trial media interviews showed that they improperly considered and formed opinions about Molly’s mental health. The court rejected this argument, characterizing the defendants’ allegations as being, at best, general, speculative, and conclusory. Furthermore, the court concluded that even if the trial court were to hold an evidentiary hearing, which it was not required to do, precedent prohibiting verdict impeachment would bar the defendants from presenting any admissible evidence to prove the truth of their allegations.

(2) Defendants asserted that the State failed to present substantial evidence to rebut or contradict Molly’s exculpatory handwritten statement, which the State introduced, establishing that Molly and Tom acted in lawful self-defense and defense of others. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

The State was required to present substantial evidence sufficient to convince a rational trier of fact that the defendants did not act in self-defense. The appellate court determined that the case was not entirely predicated on Molly’s statement that she and Tom acted in self-defense and defense of each other. Rather, the State presented substantial circumstantial evidence from which a rational juror could reach a contrary conclusion, including that: (1) Jason suffered at least twelve blows to the head; (2) Tom had no visible injuries and Molly had only a “light redness” on her neck; (3) Jason was unarmed when the altercation occurred; (4) Jason’s children remained asleep throughout the entire altercation; (5) EMS, paramedics, and law enforcement responders observed that some of the blood on Jason’s body had dried, and that Jason’s body felt cool; (6) Tom told a coworker that he hated Jason; and (7) Jason had a life insurance policy, of which Molly was the named beneficiary.

(3) The Court of Appeals concluded, over a dissent, that certain evidentiary errors were so prejudicial as to inhibit the defendants’ ability to present a full and meaningful defense.

(a) The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erroneously concluded that statements Jack and Sarah Corbett made to workers at a children’s advocacy center were inadmissible under the hearsay exception for medical diagnosis or treatment. At the time of trial, Jack and Sarah had been taken to Ireland to live with their aunt and uncle. The appellate court determined that their statements at the advocacy center satisfied the two-part test for admissibility established in State v. Hinnant, 351 N.C. 277 (2000):  (1) the children made the statements to obtain medical diagnosis or treatment; and (2) the statements were reasonably pertinent to medical diagnosis or treatment. The court explained that the child-friendly atmosphere and the separation of the examination rooms did not indicate that the children’s statements during the interviews were not intended for medical purposes. The children were informed before their interviews that they would be receiving medical interviews together with physical examinations as part of their full evaluations at the facility. The interviewers asked non-leading, open-ended questions, instructed the children that they should not “guess at anything” and emphasized the overall significance of the child medical evaluations that they would be receiving. In addition, the court concluded that the children’s statements were reasonably pertinent to medical treatment or diagnosis. Following their forensic medical interviews, Sarah and Jack were examined by a pediatrician who diagnosed both children as “victim[s] of child abuse based on exposure to domestic violence” and recommended that they “receive mental health services” as treatment.

Moreover, the court concluded that even if the children’s forensic medical interview statements were inadmissible under the medical diagnosis or treatment exception to the rule against hearsay, they (along with statements the children made to DSS workers) were admissible under the residual hearsay exception.

(b) Stuart James, the State’s expert witness in bloodstain pattern analysis, testified at trial about untested blood spatter on the underside hem of Tom’s boxer shorts and the bottom of Molly’s pajama pants. The defendants argued that this testimony was not the product of reliable principles and methods applied reliably to the facts of this case. The Court of Appeals agreed.

While James was “unquestionably qualified to provide expert testimony on the subject” of blood spatter, he did not follow the reliability protocol establish in a treatise he coauthored on the subject. First, these particular stains were not tested for the presence of blood. Second, though James said it was the “best practice” for an analyst to view a photograph of the person wearing the blood-spattered clothes, he never viewed a photograph of Tom “wearing just the boxer shorts.” James further testified that the State provided him with just one photograph of Molly wearing the pajama pants, and that it was not readily apparent from that photograph how the pants actually fit Molly on the night of the incident. The court found James’s failure to follow the reliability standards and protocol prescribed in his own treatise as inherently suspect. It concluded that James’s testimony was based upon insufficient facts and data, and, accordingly, could not have been the product of reliable principles and methods applied reliably to the facts of the case.

The court determined that James's testimony “had the powerful effect of bolstering the State’s claim that Jason was struck after and while he was down and defenseless.” But, given the flawed methodology, the  testimony could only serve to unduly influence the jury to reach a conclusion that it was fully capable of reaching on its own.

(c) The defendants argued that the trial court erred in striking Tom’s testimony that, during the altercation, he “hear[d] Molly scream[,] ‘Don’t hurt my dad.’ ” The Court of Appeals agreed. The court reasoned that Molly’s statement was admissible for the non-hearsay purpose of illustrating Tom’s then-existing state of mind. This was “a particularly relevant issue” in light of the defendants’ claims of self-defense and defense of another.

(d) Tom argued that the trial court committed reversible error by instructing the jury that he would not be entitled to the benefit of self-defense or defense of a family member if the jury found that he were the initial aggressor in the altercation with Jason. The Court of Appeals agreed.

First, the appellate court stated that the trial court could not have based its ruling on Tom’s decision to arm himself with the baseball bat before joining the altercation. The mere fact that a defendant was armed is not evidence that he was the aggressor if he did not unlawfully use his weapon.

Moreover, the court deemed it significant that Jason was the first to employ deadly force. Tom testified that from the moment he opened the bedroom door, “Jason had his hands around Molly’s neck,” and he said he was going to kill her. Jason subsequently put Molly in a “very tight chokehold” and Tom noticed that Molly “was no longer wiggling. She was just weight, being dragged back into the hallway.”

Because Tom did not aggressively and willingly enter into the fight without legal excuse or provocation, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred by instructing the jury on the aggressor doctrine. The error, the court reasoned, very likely prejudiced Molly as well as Tom, since the jury was instructed that it could find her guilty under an acting-in-concert theory.

One judge concurred in part and dissented in part. The judge concurred that the trial court did not err by denying defendants’ request for an evidentiary hearing on their MAR and the MAR itself or by denying defendants’ motions to dismiss for insufficient evidence. The judge dissented from the remainder of the majority opinion leading to its conclusion that the defendants are entitled to a new trial.

The trial court did not err by dismissing an empaneled juror. During trial the State moved for the trial court to inquire into the competency of Juror 7 to render a fair and impartial verdict. The trial court conducted a hearing in which a bailiff testified that the juror asked the bailiff “if they could have prayer during the breaks in the jury room,” and said that “he felt it was inappropriate and rude for [the District Attorney] to be pointing at people in the audience while a witness was testifying.” Upon questioning, the juror said that he did not remember making any statement pertaining to the case and agreed that he had not formed an opinion that would affect his ability to be a fair and impartial juror. Rather than dismiss the juror, the trial court gave curative instructions to the jury. Later that day, the State played audio from a jailhouse call between the defendant and his mother, revealing that the defendant’s mother knew Juror 7. The State renewed its request to dismiss the juror. The trial court again asked the juror whether he had made the comment about the district attorney being rude. The juror admitted that he could “vaguely remember” discussing the jury’s security and whether he could pray for the jury because he believed they were “in jeopardy somehow.” The trial court made findings of fact indicating that the juror provided a different response to the same question during separate hearings and ignored the trial court’s instructions. In these circumstances, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by dismissing the juror.

State v. Langley, ___ N.C. App. ____, 803 S.E.2d 166 (June 20, 2017) rev’d on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, 817 S.E.2d 191 (Aug 17 2018)

Although juror misconduct occurred, the defendant’s challenge failed because the error was invited. After it was reported to the judge that a juror did an internet search of a term used in jury instructions, the judge called the jurors into court and instructed them to disregard any other information and to follow the judge’s instructions. When the defendant moved for mistrial, the trial court offered to continue the inquiry, offering to interview each juror. The defendant did not respond to the trial judge’s offer. The court held: “Defendant is not in a position to repudiate the action and argue that it is grounds for a new trial since he did not accept the trial court’s offer to continue the inquiry when the judge offered to do so. Therefore, if any error took place, Defendant invited it.”  

In a case where the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s mistrial motions based on juror misconduct and refusing the defendant’s request to make further inquiry into whether other jurors received prejudicial outside information. During the sentencing phase of the trial, the trial court received a letter from juror Lloyd’s brother-in-law claiming that Lloyd contacted his sister and said that one juror failed to disclose information during voir dire, that he went online and found information about the defendant, and that he asked his sister the meaning of the term malice. Upon inquiry by the court Lloyd denied that he conducted online research or asked about the meaning of the term malice. The trial court removed Lloyd from the jury and replaced him with an alternate. The defendant moved for a mistrial before and after removal of Lloyd and asked the trial court to make further inquiry of the other jurors to determine if they were exposed to outside information. Given the trial court’s “searching” inquiry of Lloyd, the court found no abuse of discretion. With regard to the trial court’s failure to inquire of the other jurors, the court emphasized that there is no rule that requires a court to hold a hearing to investigate juror misconduct when an allegation is made.

In a first-degree murder case where the defendant attempted to escape mid-trial, causing a lockdown of the courthouse and the trial court to order a security escort for the jury, the trial court’s procedure for inquiring about the juror’s exposure to media coverage was adequate. When court reconvened the next day, the trial court had the bailiff ask the jurors whether any of them had seen any reports about the events of the previous day. None indicated that they had. The trial court decided that it was unnecessary to individually inquire of the jurors and once the jury was back in the courtroom, the trial court asked them, as a whole, whether they had followed the court’s instructions to avoid any coverage of the trial. None indicated that they had violated the court’s instructions.

In this murder case, the trial court did not err by failing to make further inquiry when a prospective juror revealed during voir dire that prospective jurors were discussing the case in the jury room. Questioning of the juror revealed that “a few” prospective jurors spoke about whether they knew the defendant, what had happened, and news coverage of the crime. The juror indicated that no one knew the defendant or anything about the case. The trial court acted within its discretion by declining to conduct any further examination and limiting its inquiry to the juror’s voir dire. 

Although the trial court erred by admitting in a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) hearing a juror’s testimony about the impact on his deliberations of his conversation with the defendant’s mother during trial, the trial court’s findings supported its determination that there was no reasonable possibility the juror was affected by the extraneous information. After the defendant was found guilty it came to light that his mother, Ms. Elmore, spoke with a juror during trial. The defendant filed a MAR alleging that he did not receive a fair trial based on this contact. At the MAR hearing, the juror admitted that a conversation took place but said that he did not take it into account in arriving at a verdict. The trial court denied the MAR. Although it was error for the trial court to consider the juror’s mental processes regarding the extraneous information, the judge’s unchallenged findings of fact supported its conclusion that there was no reasonable possibility that the juror could have been affected by the information. The court noted that the juror testified that Elmore said only that her son was in trouble and that she was there to support him; she never said what the trouble was, told the juror her son’s name, or specified his charges.

In a case involving first-degree murder and other charges, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s mistrial motion. On July 16th the trial court learned that while two jurors were leaving the courthouse the previous day after the verdict was rendered in the guilt phase, they saw and heard a man thought to be the defendant’s brother, cursing and complaining about the trial. The two jurors informed the other jurors about this incident. On July 20th, the trial court learned that over the weekend juror McRae had discussed the trial with a spectator at the defendant’s trial. The trial court removed McRae and replaced him with an alternate juror. The court concluded that there was no evidence of jury misconduct prior to or during deliberations as to guilt and that there was no prejudice as to sentencing because the defendant received a sentence of life imprisonment not death.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s mistrial motion. During a recess at trial, a juror was approached by a man who said, “Just quit, and I’ll let you go home.” Upon return to the courtroom, the trial court inquired and determined that six jurors witnessed the incident. The trial court examined each juror individually and each indicated that the incident would not affect his or her ability to follow the trial court’s instructions or review of the evidence. Given the trial court’s response and the lack of evidence showing that the jurors were incapable of impartially rendering their verdict, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the motion.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying a defense motion to dismiss a juror, made after the juror sent a letter to the trial judge requesting to see a DVD that had been played the previous day in court and stating that she thought the defendant’s accent was fabricated. Despite being presented with only a suspicion of potential misconduct, the court made inquiry and determined that the juror had not made up her mind as to guilt or innocence and that she was willing to listen to the remainder of the evidence before considering guilt or innocence. The juror did not indicate that she was unable to accept a particular defense or penalty or abide by the presumption of innocence. Nothing suggested that the juror had spoken with other jurors about her thoughts, shared the note with anyone, or participated in any kind of misconduct. Given the trial court’s examination, it was not required to allow the defense to examine the juror.

State v. Ross, 27 N.C. App. 379 (Oct. 19, 2010)

The trial court’s entry into the jury room during deliberations to determine the jury’s progress was not subject to plain error review. However, the court admonished the trial court that it should refrain from such conduct “to avoid the possibility of improperly influencing the jury and to avoid disruptions in the juror’s deliberation process.” 

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to conduct an inquiry into allegations of jury misconduct or by denying the defendant’s motion for a new trial. The day after the verdict was delivered in the defendant’s sexual battery trial and at the sentencing hearing, defense counsel moved for a new trial, arguing that several jurors had admitted looking up, on the Internet during trial, legal terms (sexual gratification, reasonable doubt, intent, etc.) and the sexual battery statute. The trial court did not conduct any further inquiry and denied defendant’s motion. Because definitions of legal terms are not extraneous information under Evidence Rule 606 and did not implicate defendant’s constitutional right to confront witnesses against him, the allegations were not proper matters for an inquiry by the trial court.

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