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., 09/25/2021
E.g., 09/25/2021
State v Walston, 367 N.C. 721 (Dec. 19, 2014)

Based on long-standing precedent, the trial court’s use of the term “victim” in the jury instructions was not impermissible commentary on a disputed issue of fact and the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request to use the words “alleged victim” instead of “victim” in the jury charge in this child sexual abuse case. The court continued:

We stress, however, when the State offers no physical evidence of injury to the complaining witnesses and no corroborating eyewitness testimony, the best practice would be for the trial court to modify the pattern jury instructions at defendant’s request to use the phrase “alleged victim” or “prosecuting witness” instead of “victim.” 

In this Moore County case, the defendant was convicted of first-degree rape and sex offense, crime against nature, possession of firearm by felon, communicating threats and various assaults stemming from attacks on his estranged then-wife. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court plainly erred by permitting multiple witnesses for the State to refer to the woman as the “victim,” that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to object to those references, and that the trial court plainly erred by using “victim” to describe the woman in its jury instructions.

(1) A total of eight witnesses for the State used the term “victim” in reference to the woman, five of whom were law enforcement officers and four of whom were expert witnesses. The defendant contended this amounted to improper vouching for the accuser’s credibility and argued the trial court should have intervened ex mero motu. The court found that the defendant could not show prejudice and therefore could not establish plain error. “…[T]he strength of the State’s evidence against defendant . . . outweighed any potential subliminal effect of the witnesses’ occasional references to [the woman] as the victim.” Slip. op. at 13.

(2) For the same reasons, the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim failed. The defendant could not demonstrate a reasonable possibility of a different result at trial had his counsel objected to the uses of the word “victim” and therefore could not establish prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). 

(3) According to the defendant, the trial court’s use of the word “victim” in its jury instruction violated the statutory mandate against expression of judicial opinion. Rejecting this argument, the court observed:

Our Supreme Court has consistently rejected a defendant’s attempt to couch the trial court’s use of the term “victim” in its jury instructions as an improper expression of judicial opinion in violation of N.C.G.S. §§ 15A-1222 and 1232. . . Likewise, our Supreme Court has rejected arguments that the trial court’s use of the term “victim” in its charge to the jury amounts to plain error . . . Id. at 17.

Any constitutional challenge to the jury instructions on this point was not raised in the trial court and therefore waived on appeal. The convictions were thus unanimously affirmed.

In this sexual assault case, no plain error occurred when the trial court referred to the complaining witness as “the victim” in the jury instructions. It is well-settled that when a judge properly places the burden of proof on the State, referring to the complaining witness as “the victim” does not constitute plain error. The court noted however that the best practice is for the trial court to modify the pattern jury instructions at the defendant’s request to use the phrase “alleged victim” or “prosecuting witness” instead of “victim.” Here however the defendant did not request such a change and the trial court properly placed the burden of proof on the State.

State v. Davis, 239 N.C. App. 522 (Mar. 3, 2015) modified and affirmed on other grounds, 368 N.C. 794 (Apr 15 2016)

Citing State v. Walston, 367 N.C. 721 (Dec. 19, 2014), the court held in this child sexual assault case that the trial court did not commit reversible error by using the word “victim” in the jury instructions. 

In this child sexual abuse case, the trial court did not err by referring to the victim as the “alleged victim” in its opening remarks to the jury and referring to her as “the victim” in its final jury instructions. The court distinguished State v. Walston, 229 N.C. App. 141 (2013), rev’d, 367 N.C. 721 (Dec. 19, 2014), on grounds that in this case the defendant failed to object at trial and thus the plain error standard applied. Moreover, given the evidence, the court could not conclude that the trial court’s word choice had a probable impact on the jury’s finding of guilt.

No plain error occurred in a sexual assault case where the trial court referred to “the victim” in its jury instructions.

In this child sex case, the trial court did not commit plain error by using the word “victim” in the jury instructions. The court distinguished State v. Walston, 229 N.C. App. 141 (2013) (trial court’s use of the term “victim” in jury instructions was prejudicial error), rev’d, 367 N.C. 721 (Dec. 19, 2014). First, in Walston, the trial court denied the defendant’s request to modify the pattern jury instructions to use the term “alleged victim” in place of the term “victim,” and objected repeatedly to the proposed instructions; here, no such request or objection was made. Second, in Walston, the evidence was conflicting as to whether the alleged sexual offenses occurred; here no such conflict existed. Finally, in Walston the trial court committed prejudicial error; here, the defendant did not assert that he suffered any prejudice because of the use of the term “victim.” 

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that by using the phrase “the victim” while instructing the jury the trial court expressed an opinion regarding a fact in violation of G.S. 15A-1232; the court found that the defendant failed to show prejudice.

In a sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by using the word “victim” in the jury instructions. Use of this word did not constitute an opinion by the trial court regarding guilt and caused no prejudice.

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