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

In this sex offense and indecent liberties case, the court held: (1) a sex offense indictment that identified the child victim as “Victim #1” was fatally defective; (2) the trial court’s erroneous failure to conduct a jury instruction conference prior to submitting the existence of a statutory aggravating factor to the jury did not “materially prejudice” the defendant.

(1) Following its decision in State v. White, 372 N.C. 248 (2019), the court held that an indictment charging the defendant with committing a sex offense with a child was fatally defective and facially invalid because it identified the victim as “Victim #1.”  As in White, the court found that identifying the victim as “Victim #1” did not satisfy the requirement in G.S. 15-144.2(b) that a short form sex offense with a child indictment “[name] the child.” 

(2) The court went on to determine that the trial court’s failure to conduct an instruction conference prior to submitting the existence of the “position of trust or confidence” statutory aggravating factor to the jury was error but that it did not “materially prejudice” the defendant.  After accepting the jury’s verdict in the guilt-innocence phase of the trial, the trial court convened a proceeding for the purpose of determining whether a properly noticed “position of trust or confidence” statutory aggravating factor existed.  The record clearly established that during this proceeding the trial court did not conduct a jury instruction conference or otherwise discuss the manner in which the jury should be instructed concerning the aggravating factor.  G.S. 15A-1231(b) requires trial courts to hold a recorded conference on jury instructions but states that a failure “to comply fully” with the statute does not constitute grounds for appeal unless it “materially prejudiced the case of the defendant.”  The Court of Appeals had held, relying on its own precedent, that the total failure to conduct a jury instruction conference necessitated a new proceeding on the aggravating factor regardless of whether the defendant made a showing of “material prejudice.”  The Supreme Court rejected this approach and its distinction between cases in which the trial judge entirely fails to comply with G.S. 15A-1231(b) and those where there is partial compliance.  Overruling any earlier decisions to the contrary, the Supreme Court explained:

[T]he reference in [G.S.] 15A-1231(b) to the necessity for the trial court to “comply fully” with the statutory requirement that a jury instruction conference be conducted, instead of distinguishing between a complete and a partial failure to comply with the applicable statutory requirement, is intended to require the making of a showing of “material prejudice” a prerequisite to an award of appellate relief regardless of the nature and extent of the trial court’s non-compliance with [G.S.] 15A-1231(b).

With this explanation of the statute, the court proceeded to analyze whether the defendant was materially prejudiced in this case and concluded that he was not, noting that there was undisputed overwhelming evidence that the victim was dependent on the defendant in various ways as his step-child and that the court previously had stated that evidence establishing a parent-child relationship tends to support the aggravating factor at issue.

In separate opinions, Justices Newby and Morgan dissented in part and concurred in result only in part.  Justice Newby dissented from the portion of the majority opinion dealing with the validity of the indictment, noting that the defendant was “fully aware of the identity of the victim” and expressing his view that the indictment was sufficient.  As for the instruction conference issue, Justice Newby interpreted G.S. 15A-1231(b) as not requiring a formal instruction conference at a sentencing proceeding to determine the existence of an aggravating factor.  In a footnote, the majority opinion rejected this interpretation of the statute. 

Justice Morgan also would have found the indictment valid because, scrutinizing the whole record, it sufficiently apprised the defendant of the charge against him.  Justice Morgan noted that the victim’s initials appeared on the arrest warrant that was issued for the defendant and on an indictment returned against him for indecent liberties involving the same victim.  Justice Morgan would have reached the same conclusion as the majority with regard to the instruction conference issue but would have done so by distinguishing rather than overruling the pertinent Court of Appeals opinions.

The defendant was convicted by a jury of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury based on an altercation involving the owner of the house at which he had been living. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by not instructing the jury on defense of habitation. Though that defense had been discussed throughout the trial—from a pretrial motion to the charge conference, and during a lunchtime recess in chambers—the defendant never requested an instruction on defense of habitation under G.S. 14-52.2. (1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the judge erred by failing to instruct the jury on defense of habitation despite his failure to request it, and that the issue was preserved because, in light of the in-chambers discussion on possible jury instructions, the charge conference was not recorded in its entirety as required by G.S. 15A-1231. The court of appeals noted that the better practice is to record the entire charge conference, but it ultimately rejected the defendant’s argument that a failure to do so entitled the defendant to raise any issue related to the instructions on appeal, even those not requested or objected to. Under G.S. 15A-1231(b), failures to comply with the statute do not constitute grounds for appeal unless the defendant is “materially prejudiced.” Here, where the trial court specifically stated its intention to get everything “firmly on the record” after the recess discussion and twice mentioned the possibility of giving the defense of habitation instruction, and where the defendant neither requested the instruction nor objected to the court’s failure to give it, the defendant was not materially prejudiced by the failure to record the entire charge conference. (2) The court of appeals concluded that plain error review was waived because the defendant invited any error through his failure to request the instruction or object to its omission after it had been discussed so extensively.

Although the trial court erred by failing to fully comply with the statutory requirements regarding a charge conference at the sentencing phase of this felony child abuse case, no material prejudice resulted. The court noted that G.S. 15A-1231(b) requires the trial court to hold a charge conference, regardless of whether a party requests one, before instructing the jury on aggravating factors during the sentencing phase of a non-capital case. Here, the trial court informed the parties of the aggravating factors that it would charge, gave counsel a general opportunity to be heard at the charge conference, and gave counsel an opportunity to object at the close of the instructions. However, because the trial court failed to inform counsel of the instructions that it would provide the jury, it deprived the parties of the opportunity to know what instructions would be given, and thus did not comply fully with the statute.

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