Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


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., 07/12/2024
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In this Brunswick County case, defendant appealed his conviction for habitual impaired driving. The Court of Appeals found no error after examining the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motion to suppress and motion to dismiss, and the jury instruction provided regarding defendant’s flight from the scene.

Evidence admitted at trial showed that a witness heard a crash and ran outside to see defendant with a bloody nose sitting behind the wheel of his truck, which was crashed into a ditch. After talking with the witness for several minutes, defendant walked off down the highway and up a dirt road into the woods. Law enforcement arrived, received a description from the witness, and conducted a search, finding defendant behind a bush in the woods 15 minutes later. After handcuffing defendant, the law enforcement officer conducted a “show-up” identification by taking defendant back to the witness and allowing the witness to identify defendant through the rolled-down window of the police vehicle.

The court first examined defendant’s motion to suppress the eyewitness “show-up” identification on due process and Eyewitness Identification Reform Act grounds (“EIRA”) (N.C.G.S § 15A-284.52(c1)-(c2)). Following State v. Malone, 373 N.C. 134 (2019), the court performed a two-part test, finding that although the “show-up” was impermissibly suggestive, the procedures used by law enforcement did not create a likelihood of irreparable misidentification when examined through the five reliability factors articulated in Malone. Applying EIRA, the court found that all three of the requirements in subsection (c1) were followed, as law enforcement provided a live suspect found nearby a short time after the incident and took photographs at the time of the identification. The court also held that subsection (c2) imposes no duty on law enforcement, and instead imposes a duty to develop guidelines on the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission.

The court then reviewed defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence showing that he was driving the vehicle. Applying State v. Burris, 253 N.C. App. 525 (2017), and State v. Clowers, 217 N.C. App. 520 (2011), the court determined that circumstantial evidence was sufficient to support a conclusion that defendant was driving the vehicle. Because the circumstantial evidence was substantial and supported the inference that defendant was driving, the lack of direct evidence did not support a motion to dismiss.

Finally, the court examined the jury instruction given regarding defendant’s flight from the scene, Pattern Jury Instruction 104.35. Defendant argued that the evidence showed only that he was leaving the scene of the accident and walking towards his home, actions that did not represent evidence of consciousness of guilt. The court applied the extensive caselaw finding no error in a flight jury instruction when evidence shows the defendant left the scene and took steps to avoid apprehension. Because evidence in the record showed that defendant fled and hid behind a bush, the court found sufficient evidence to support the use of the jury instruction, despite defendant’s alternate explanation of his conduct.

The State’s evidence tended to show that the defendant was driving a van with a trailer attached behind it when he cut off two motorcycles, made rude gestures, and caused one of the motorcycles to crash. The driver of the motorcycle sustained serious injuries and a passenger died as a result of the accident. The defendant slowed down briefly and then fled the scene. 

(1) The trial court did not err in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the charges of felony hit and run because there was sufficient evidence that the defendant knew or reasonably should have known, that the vehicle he was driving was involved in a crash and that someone was killed or seriously injured as a result. First, the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence that he knew or reasonably should have known that the vehicle he was operating was involved in a crash or that the crash had resulted in serious bodily injury because the evidence could have shown that the defendant could not have seen behind his van and trailer or that there may not have been contact between the victim’s motorcycle and the defendant’s trailer. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument for multiple reasons, largely centering on evidence of the defendant’s awareness of the position of his vehicle relative to the motorcyclists and other traffic and evidence that the defendant slowed down immediately following the crash and then sped away at a high rate of speed.

(2) The defendant argued that the trial court erred in giving the jury an instruction on flight as evidence of the defendant’s consciousness of guilt because “leaving the scene of the offense, which could be considered flight under the challenged instruction, is an essential element of felony hit and run.” Slip op. at ¶ 37. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the defendant’s assertion that flight is an essential element of felony hit and run, explaining that flight requires some evidence of a defendant taking steps to avoid apprehension while a driver’s motive for leaving the scene of a crash for purposes of felony hit and run is immaterial. The court went on to find the instruction supported by evidence of the defendant speeding away, later lying about why his tire was blown out, and asking for directions to a destination that would allow him to arrive there without traveling on the interstate.

The defendant was charged and convicted of first-degree felony murder for the attempted robbery and fatal shooting of a taxi cab driver whom the defendant had summoned to his apartment complex. When the taxi cab arrived, witnesses saw a man shoot the driver, drag the driver from his car, and then rummage through his pockets. The shooter then ran to a white four-door car, which then left the apartment complex. 

Officers found a sweatshirt on the rear floorboard of the taxi cab with a prepaid cell phone inside. The cell phone contained photos of the defendant, his State-issued identification card, and his electric bill. The cell phone also contained texts between the defendant and another man regarding the defendant’s obtaining a handgun and his need for money to pay his electric bill. 

Officers went to the defendant’s home a short time later. The defendant agreed to come to the station for questioning and went there in his girlfriend’s car – a white, four-door car like the one that left the crime scene.

At his trial on first degree murder charges, the defendant requested an instruction on flight that permitted the jury to infer lack of guilt from the defendant’s decision not to flee when investigators approached him at his home. The trial court declined to provide the instruction. The jury found the defendant guilty of first-degree felony murder and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. The defendant appealed, arguing that the trial court erred by rejecting his proposed jury instruction.

The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err in failing to give the instruction because the defendant’s request was not based on his conduct at the crime scene. Indeed, the evidence established that the shooter, who the State alleged was the defendant, fled the scene after shooting the victim. The Court explained that providing an instruction on lack of flight in these circumstances would inappropriately allow defendants “‘to make evidence for themselves by their subsequent acts.’” Slip op. at ¶ 17 (quoting State v. Burr, 341 N.C. 263, 297 (1995)). As a general rule, defendants are not allowed to use their failure to flee before arrest or to escape from jail as proof of innocence.

In addition, the Court held that even assuming that the trial court erred by refusing to give the instruction, the error was harmless in light of the State’s overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.

Judge Murphy concurred in part and concurred in the result only in part. He wrote separately to express his view that though the Court was bound by caselaw to reject the defendant’s argument, he agreed with the defendant that if courts were going to continue to instruct jurors that they could consider flight as evidence of guilt, jurors should be instructed in cases when the defendant did not flee that they could consider that as evidence of innocence.

After the defendant’s wife left him due to his drinking and violence, the defendant committed a number of threatening and destructive acts towards her that culminated in the defendant shooting his estranged wife twice in the head outside her work. The victim survived and called 911, and the defendant was arrested in the woods nearby a few hours later. The defendant was indicted for attempted first degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, and possession of a firearm by a felon. The defendant was convicted of all charges, sentenced to consecutive terms of 207-261 months and 96-128 months in prison, and raised three arguments on appeal.

First, the defendant argued that the trial court committed plain error by admitting a cell phone video of him kicking a dog, claiming it was irrelevant, prejudicial, and improper character evidence. Since the defendant did not object to the video at trial, the appellate court only considered whether admission of the video rose to the level of plain error. Viewed in context, the video was insignificant when compared to the other overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt, such as witness testimony about his prior threats against the victim, his prior possession and use of a firearm that matched the one used to shoot his wife, his arrest nearby shortly after the shooting, matching ammunition found on his person when he was arrested, and the statements he made during his arrest. Therefore, the court held that it was not plain error to admit the video, since the defendant could not show that he was prejudiced by its admission even if it was error.

Next, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by allowing opinion testimony from the state’s firearms and ballistic expert, contending that it was not based on reliable principles or methods applied to the facts of the case. At trial and again on appeal, the defendant cited to studies and cases from other jurisdictions disputing the reliability of ballistics identification. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision, and held that the evidence was properly admitted under Rule 702 based on the extensive voir dire of the witness which showed that her testimony was based on sufficient facts and data, was the product of reliable principles and methods, and those principles and methods were applied to the facts of the particular case. The appellate court stressed that its role was only to review the trial court’s decision under an abuse of discretion standard, and the record demonstrated that the lower court’s decision on this issue was reasoned and not arbitrary. Moreover, as in the first argument, even if it was error, the defendant could not show prejudice due to the overwhelming evidence of his guilt even without the challenged testimony.

Finally, the defendant argued that it was error to give a jury instruction on flight under the facts of this case, but the appellate court again disagreed. The court acknowledged that mere evidence of leaving the scene is not enough to support the instruction; there must also be some evidence of taking steps to avoid apprehension, but that evidence was present in this case. After shooting his wife, the defendant did not go home but was instead found five hours later near a wooded area. When the defendant and officers saw each other, the defendant entered the woods twice and a K-9 unit had to search for the defendant, eventually finding him curled up in a ball behind a large tree. Viewed in the light most favorable to the state, there was at least some evidence reasonably supporting the theory that the defendant fled.

Judge Zachary concurred with two of the majority’s conclusions, but dissented as to the admission of the forensic firearms expert testimony based on the dispute regarding the error rate and reliability of the analysis.

State v. Graham, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 17, 2020) aff'd on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, 2021-NCSC-125 (Oct 29 2021)

The defendant was charged with four counts of engaging in sexual acts against a child under 13 and taking indecent liberties with a child. The defendant was alleged to have touched a child, A.M.D., in sexual manner on several occasions over a period of one to two years. The state’s evidence at trial consisted primarily of testimony from the victim, A.M.D., and corroborating testimony from other witnesses to whom she had disclosed the abuse. 

After the allegations in this case came to light, the defendant left the area and could not be located. The lead detective sought assistance from the U.S. Marshals, and the defendant was eventually located in and extradited from Puerto Rico. Defendant argued that the trial court erred by allowing the detective to testify about the extradition since he had no direct personal knowledge about what transpired, and argued that the court erred a second time by instructing the jury on flight. The defendant did not raise either objection at trial, so the issues were restricted to plain error review. The appellate court held that it was not plain error to allow testimony about extradition since the detective had personal knowledge based on his own attempts to locate the defendant, his act of soliciting help from the Marshals, and his oversight of the whole case as lead detective. Even if it was error, it was not prejudicial since the jury also heard testimony that the defendant escaped from jail pending trial and was recaptured hiding in a nearby home. The jury instruction on flight was likewise proper, since defendant altered his usual routine after the accusations by leaving and staying away until he was located and extradited, reasonably supporting the state’s position that he fled to avoid apprehension.

In this assault case, the trial court did not err by instructing the jury that it could consider the defendant’s alleged flight as evidence of guilt. The court began: “The probative value of flight evidence has been ‘consistently doubted’” in our legal system, and we note at the outset that we similarly doubt the probative value of Defendant’s alleged flight here.” However, it went on to conclude that the evidence supports a flight instruction. Specifically, witnesses testified that the defendant ran from the scene of the altercation.

In this burning case, the trial court erred by instructing the jury on flight. Here, the evidence raises no more than suspicion and conjecture that the defendant fled the scene. Moreover, there is no evidence that the defendant took steps to avoid apprehension. The error however was not prejudicial.

In this assault and discharging a firearm into occupied property case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by providing a jury instruction on flight. The defendant fired his weapon at the victims as a vehicle carrying the defendant sped from a gas station. The court rejected the defendant’s argument because he was a passenger in the car—and not the driver—that there was no evidence supporting a flight instruction. The court noted that the bar for an instruction on flight “is low.” Here, the defendant fired his gun while the vehicle in which he was a passenger was speeding away from the gas station; the defendant later told the driver to stop at a specified location and then abandoned the vehicle and left the area on foot; and the defendant intentionally disposed of his weapon shortly thereafter. This evidence “plainly supports an instruction on flight in spite of the fact that Defendant was not actually driving the [vehicle] when it fled the … station.”

In this child abuse case, the trial court committed prejudicial error by giving a flight instruction where there was no evidence upon which a reasonable theory of flight could be based. The court explained: “what the trial court deemed a ‘close call’ in terms of defendant’s alleged flight amounted to mere conjecture.” It rejected the State’s argument that the defendant’s refusal to speak with law enforcement on a voluntary, pre-arrest basis was evidence of flight. It also rejected the State’s argument that there was evidence that the defendant deviated from his normal pattern of behavior, showing efforts to avoid apprehension. 

State v. Huey, 243 N.C. App. 446 (Oct. 6, 2015) rev’d on other grounds, 370 N.C. 174 (Sep 29 2017)

In this homicide case, the trial court properly instructed the jury on flight where evidence showed that the defendant shot the victim, got into his vehicle, drove off for a short period of time, and returned; the firearm used to shoot the victim was never recovered. Noting that mere evidence that the defendant left a crime scene is not enough to support an instruction on flight, the court found that here there was evidence that the defendant took steps to avoid apprehension. Specifically the evidence supported the theory that the defendant drove away briefly to dispose of the firearm used in the homicide.

In this felony breaking and entering and larceny case where the victim discovered the defendant in his home, the trial court did not err by instructing the jury regarding flight where the victim testified that when he approached his front door and saw the defendant in his living room, the defendant looked at the victim and ran out the back door. 

State v. Davis, 226 N.C. App. 96 (Mar. 19, 2013)

In a homicide case, the trial court did not err by instructing on flight. The State’s evidence showed that officers were unable to locate the defendant for several months following the shooting. The defendant resided at his aunt’s house before the 2:30 am shooting and instead of returning there, he left the state and went to Florida. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his presence in Florida, his home state, was not indicative of whether he avoided apprehension.

The trial court erred by instructing on flight. The defendant fled from an officer responding to a 911 call regarding violation of a domestic violence protective order. After being arrested the defendant’s vehicle was searched and he was charged with perpetrating a hoax on law enforcement officers by use of a false bomb on the basis of a device found in his vehicle. The defendant’s initial flight cannot be considered as evidence of his guilt of the hoax offense. However, the error did not prejudice the defendant.

State v. Lawrence, 210 N.C. App. 73 (Mar. 1, 2011) rev’d on other grounds, 365 N.C. 506 (Apr 13 2012)

The evidence was sufficient to warrant an instruction on flight. During the first robbery attempt, the defendant and a co-conspirator fled from a deputy sheriff. During the second attempt, the defendant fled from an armed neighbor. After learning of the defendant’s name and address, an officer canvassed the neighborhood, looking for the defendant. The defendant was later arrested in another state.

In a kidnapping, sexual assault, and murder case, the trial court did not err by instructing the jury on flight. The defendant and an accomplice left the victims bound, placed a two-by-four across the inside of the apartment door, hindering access from the outside, and exited through a window. Despite the fact that the defendant lived at the apartment, there was no indication he ever returned. Although a warrant for the defendant’s arrest was issued immediately, ten years passed before the defendant was extradited. 

There was sufficient evidence to support an instruction on flight. A masked man robbed a store and left in a light-colored sedan. Shortly thereafter, an officer saw a vehicle matching this description and a high speed chase ensued. The vehicle was owned by the defendant. The driver abandoned the vehicle; a mask and a gun were found inside. Although the defendant initially reported that his car was stolen, he later admitted that his report was false. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the instruction was improper because there was only circumstantial evidence that defendant was the person who fled the scene.

The trial judge did not err by instructing on flight where the defendant failed to appear for a court date in the case.

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