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., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024

In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing five separate errors by the trial court and contending the cumulative prejudice of those errors entitled him to a new trial. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In June of 2017, the victim was shot in the parking lot of an apartment complex in Asheville by a man in a black hoodie. At the time of the shooting, defendant was sixteen years of age. A witness from the scene later identified defendant as the man in the hoodie, picking his photograph out of a selection of potential subjects. The witness also gave a written statement of the events to detectives. Another witness, defendant’s cousin, also identified him as the shooter during a recorded interview with detectives. At trial, both witnesses were called to testify. Defendant’s cousin testified she was unable to recall the events around the shooting, and the prosecutor moved to have the recording of her interview played for the jury under Rule of Evidence 803(5). Over defense counsel’s objection, the trial court permitted playing the video. The detectives also testified regarding the interviews of both witnesses. Defendant was subsequently convicted and appealed. 

Defendant argued the first error was a failure to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder. The Court of Appeals disagreed, explaining that the prosecution had proven each element of first-degree murder, and no evidence was admitted negating any element. Walking through defendant’s points, the court noted (1) despite defendant’s claim that he used marijuana earlier in the day of the shooting, voluntary intoxication only negated specific intent if the defendant was intoxicated at the time the crime was committed; (2) no case law supported the argument that defendant’s age (16 years old) negated the elements of first-degree murder; (3) provocation by a third party could not excuse defendant’s actions towards the victim; and (4) defendant’s statement to a witness that he was “angry” at the victim but only intended to fight him did not prevent a finding of premeditation and deliberation where no evidence was admitted to show his anger reached a level “such as to disturb the faculties and reason.” Slip Op. at 19. 

The second error alleged by defendant was a special jury instruction requested by defense counsel on intent, premeditation, and deliberation for adolescents. The court explained that while defense counsel’s requested instruction might be supported by scientific research, no evidence was admitted on adolescent brain function, and “[d]efendant’s age is not considered nor contemplated in the analysis of premeditation and deliberation, therefore, this instruction would be incorrect and likely to mislead the jury.” Id. at 22. 

The third alleged error was playing the interview video and introducing the photo lineup identification provided by defendant’s cousin. Defendant argued she did not testify the events were fresh in her mind at the time of the recording, and the interview and lineup did not correctly reflect her knowledge of the shooting. The court disagreed with both arguments, explaining that the trial court found the recording was made two days after the shooting and concluded it was fresh in her memory. The court also explained that the witness did not disavow her statements, and provided a signature and initials on identification paperwork, justifying a finding that her testimony and identification were correct. Defendant also argued that admitting the interview and identification were improper under Rule of Evidence 403. The court disagreed, explaining that the interview was highly probative of defendant’s motive, outweighing the danger of unfair prejudice. 

Considering the fourth alleged error, that the identification evidence from the first witness was tainted by impermissibly suggestive interview techniques by the detectives, the court noted that defendant did not present arguments as to why the procedures were unnecessarily suggestive. Although defendant did not properly argue the first step of the two-step determination process for impermissibly suggestive techniques, the court addressed the second step of the analysis anyway, applying the five-factor test from State v. Grimes, 309 N.C. 606 (1983), to determine there was no error in admitting the witness’s identification of defendant. Slip Op. at 31. 

Finally, the court considered defendant’s argument that it was error to permit the detectives to offer improper lay opinions about the witnesses’ “forthcoming” and “unequivocal” participation in identifying defendant. Id. at 32. Defendant failed to object at trial, so the court applied a plain error standard to the review. The court did not believe that the statements were comments on the witnesses’ credibility, but even assuming that admission was error, the court concluded that admission was not plain error due to the other evidence of guilt in the record. Because the court found no error in any of the five preceding arguments, the court found no cumulative prejudice justifying a new trial. 

Judge Murphy concurred, but concurred in result only for Parts II-E (Detective’s Statements) and II-F (Cumulative Prejudice). Id. at 35. 

In this Edgecombe County solicitation to commit murder case, the trial court did not err (1) in resolving the defendant’s request for substitute counsel; (2) by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence; and (3) by declining to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument. Additionally, (4) any error in the jury instructions for solicitation to commit murder was harmless.

(1) The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for the appointment of substitute counsel where the record did not reflect an absolute impasse between the defendant and his counsel. The trial court engaged in a lengthy colloquy with the defendant and its findings and conclusions that the defendant was acting in a disruptive manner and expressing dissatisfaction with his counsel to derail the trial but was not at an absolute impasse were well-supported.

(2) The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of solicitation to commit first-degree murder for insufficient evidence. Evidence at trial tended to show that the defendant had multiple conversations with another person, Capps, where he requested that Capps kill the defendant’s ex-girlfriend, Thomas; that the defendant gave Capps a map of Thomas’s house and the surrounding area; that the defendant provided detailed suggestions about how to kill Thomas; and that the defendant offered to kill Capps’s girlfriend if Capps killed Thomas. In the light most favorable to the State, this evidence was sufficient for the solicitation charge to be submitted to the jury.

(3) The trial court did not err by declining to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument that involved questioning the defendant’s credibility, characterizing the defendant as “angry” and “dangerous” among other things, stating that the evidence rebutted the presumption of innocence, and calling the jury’s attention to the specific deterrence a conviction would provide and the jury’s role as representatives of the community. In the context of the evidence at trial and relevant precedent, the arguments were not grossly improper.

(4) The Court of Appeals determined on plain error review that any error in the trial court’s jury instruction on solicitation to commit first-degree murder was harmless. The trial court instructed the jury using NCPI Crim. 206.17, which omits any mention of the elements of premeditation and deliberation, which distinguish first-degree from second-degree murder. The court reasoned that any error in the omission of these elements in the instruction was harmless on the facts of this case where the evidence showed that the defendant “solicited [Capps] to kill [Thomas] with malice upon [Capps’s] release from prison.” As the solicited killing necessarily would occur in the future and according to the defendant’s suggested plans, the evidence unavoidably established the defendant solicited a premeditated and deliberated homicide with the specific intent to kill. Thus, there was no indication that the jury would have reached a different verdict absent any error in the instruction, and the defendant’s ability to defend himself from the charge was not frustrated as his strategy was to deny asking Capps to kill Thomas regardless of premeditation, deliberation, or specific intent.

Judge Murphy concurred in result only and without a separate opinion with respect to the court’s conclusion that the trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s closing argument.

State v. Hobbs, ___ N.C. App. ___, 817 S.E.2d 779 (July 17, 2018) rev’d on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May 1 2020)

In this murder and armed robbery case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying defense counsel’s proffered jury instructions. The additional jury instructions requested by the defense all relate to the defendant’s mental and/or emotional condition at the time of the murder and whether the defendant had the mental capacity to consider the consequences of his actions. However, the substance of the requested instructions was included in the instructions given to the jury. Additionally, the trial court gave the defendant’s proposed instruction on lack of mental capacity, informing the jury that if as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder, persistent depressive disorder, or other mental infirmity, the defendant did not have the specific intent to kill, formed after premeditation and deliberation, he would not be guilty of first-degree murder. The jury was clearly instructed concerning their ability to consider the defendant’s mental illnesses and condition as part of their deliberations. Finally, because the defendant was found guilty of first-degree murder based both on premeditation and deliberation and felony murder, even if the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s requested instructions, no prejudice would have occurred.

The trial court did not err by instructing the jury that it could consider wounds inflicted after the victim was felled in determining whether the defendant acted with premeditation and deliberation. The trial court instructed the jury:

Neither premeditation nor deliberation are usually susceptible of direct proof. They may be proved by circumstances by which they may be inferred such as lack of provocation by the victim; conduct of the defendant before, during, and after the attempted killing; threats and declarations of the defendant; use of grossly excessive force; or inflictions of wounds after the victim is fallen.

The defendant argued this instruction was improper because there was no evidence that he inflicted wounds on the victim after the victim was felled. Following State v. Leach, 340 N.C. 236, 242 (1995)(trial court did not err by giving the instruction, “even in the absence of evidence to support each of the circumstances listed” because the instruction “informs a jury that the circumstances given are only illustrative”), the court found no error.

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