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., 06/23/2024
E.g., 06/23/2024
State v. Juarez, 369 N.C. 351 (Dec. 21, 2016)

Reversing the Court of Appeals in this first-degree felony murder case, the court held that the trial court did not commit reversible error by failing to instruct the jury on the lesser included offenses of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The underlying felony for first-degree felony murder was discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle in operation. The trial court denied the defendant’s request for instructions on second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The Court of Appeals held that it was error not to instruct on the lessers because the evidence was conflicting as to whether the defendant acted in self-defense. The court found this reasoning incorrect, noting that self-defense is not a defense to felony murder. Perfect self-defense may be a defense to the underlying felony, which would defeat the felony murder charge. Imperfect self-defense however is not available as a defense to the underlying felony use to support a felony murder charge because allowing such a defense when the defendant is in some manner at fault “would defeat the purpose of the felony murder rule.” In order to be entitled to instructions on the lesser included offenses, “the conflicting evidence must relate to whether defendant committed the crime charged, not whether defendant was legally justified in committing the crime.” Here, there is no conflict regarding whether the defendant committed the underlying felony. The defendant does not dispute that he committed this crime; rather he claims only that his conduct was justified because he was acting in self-defense. 

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 a case where the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, the trial court did not err by failing to submit an instruction on second-degree murder and/or voluntary manslaughter. The defendant argued that the evidence negated premeditation and deliberation. The court disagreed, finding that the State offered substantial evidence of those elements. Specifically, the defendant had a tumultuous relationship with the victim, with ill-will existing between the two. The victim planned to call off their wedding and sent the defendant a text message telling him that he needed to move out of the home and that she would be changing the locks. Moreover, she told the defendant, who had financial troubles, that she would continue to seek child support payments. Her body was found the next day. After the killing, the defendant gave inconsistent statements about events of the day. He told the victim’s friend that he left early for work and that the victim was not at the home, and said that she had a doctor’s appointment. However, the defendant had the victim’s vehicle and the keys to his own car with him, leaving her with no vehicle. When the friend asked the defendant whether the victim’s vehicle was at the home when he went to work, the defendant never responded. Moreover, there was no evidence that the victim provoked the defendant. This constituted substantial evidence of premeditation and deliberation. The only evidence claimed by the defendant to negate premeditation and deliberation is the text message from the victim telling him to move out and signs of struggle in the home. From this evidence, the defendant claims that premeditation and deliberation were negated because the jury could have concluded that an argument aroused a sudden passion in him. The court rejected the notion that this evidence negated premeditation and deliberation. Likewise the court determined that the trial court did not err by failing to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter, again noting the lack of evidence of heat of passion.

(1) In this case in which the defendant was convicted of felony murder with the underlying felony being child abuse, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request to instruct the jury on premeditated and deliberate murder and all lesser included offenses. There was no evidence that the defendant possessed a specific intent to kill formed after premeditation and deliberation where the evidence showed that the defendant “snapped” and “lost control.” (2) Second-degree murder is not a lesser included offense of first-degree felony murder.

In this felony-murder case the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request to instruct on second-degree murder. The underlying felony was armed robbery and the defendant’s own testimony established all the elements of that offense.

Where no evidence negated the State’s proof of first-degree murder, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for an instruction on second-degree murder.

In a case in which the victim died after consuming drugs provided by the defendant and the defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, the trial court did not err by instructing the jury on second-degree murder and the lesser offense of involuntary manslaughter. The defendant objected to submission of the lesser offense. The evidence showed that the defendant sold the victim methadone and that the defendant had nearly died the month before from a methadone overdose. There was no evidence that the defendant intended to kill the victim by selling him the methadone. This evidence would support a finding by the jury of reckless conduct under either second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter.

In a case in which the defendant was charged with first-degree murder, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for a second-degree murder charge where there was no evidence to negate the State’s proof of every element of first-degree murder; the defendant’s defense was simply an assertion that he did not shoot the victim.

State v. Miles, 222 N.C. App. 593 (Aug. 21, 2012) aff’d per curiam, 366 N.C. 503 (Apr 12 2013)

In a case in which the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, the trial court did not err by failing to instruct the jury on second-degree murder. The court found that the record supported the inference that the defendant murdered the victim after premeditation and deliberation. The defendant harassed the victim over the telephone at least 94 times and visited the victim’s home at least twice; the defendant threatened the victim’s life by voicemail on the day of the murder; the defendant stated his intention to murder the victim to a confidant; the defendant and the victim had a heated relationship and argued over money; the defendant anticipated a confrontation whereby he would use deadly force; the defendant crafted a false alibi; the defendant fled the scene leaving the victim to die; and the defendant sold his wife’s R.V., which the jury could infer was the vehicle the defendant drove on the night of the murder, less than two months after the crime. “Most notably,” the victim died as a result of a gunshot wound to the center back of the head, discharged at close range, indicating that the defendant not only inflicted a brutal, fatal wound with a deadly weapon, but that even if the defendant and the victim were fighting at the time, the victim’s back was to defendant and the victim was fleeing or turning away at the time of his death. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that certain facts suggested that a fight precipitated the murder and thus warranted an instruction on the lesser offense. It noted that even evidence of an argument, “without more, is insufficient to show that defendant’s anger was strong enough to disturb his ability to reason and hinder his ability to premeditate and deliberate the killing.”  

In a case in which the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, the trial court did not err by failing to instruct the jury on second-degree murder. The defendant conceded that the evidence warranted an instruction on first-degree murder. However, he argued that because the evidence failed to illustrate the circumstances immediately preceding the murder, the jury should have been allowed to consider that he formed the intent to kill absent premeditation and deliberation and, therefore, was entitled to an instruction on second-degree murder. The court concluded that in the absence of evidence suggesting that the victim was killed without premeditation and deliberation, an instruction on second-degree murder would be improper.

In a murder case, the trial court did not commit plain error by failing to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of second-degree murder. For reasons discussed in the opinion, the evidence showed that the defendant acted with premeditation and deliberation.

The trial court did not err by declining to instruct the jury on second-degree murder when no evidence negated the State’s evidence of first-degree murder. The defendant argued that the evidence showed that he killed the victim in a “frenzied, crack-fueled explosion” of a long-simmering “rage of jealousy.” However, the court noted, premeditation and deliberation do not imply a lack of passion, anger or emotion. Nor, the court noted, does the defendant’s possible drug intoxication support an inference that he did not premeditate and deliberate. The State presented evidence of the defendant’s conduct and statements before the killing, including threats towards the victim; ill-will and previous difficulties between the parties; lethal blows rendered after the victim had been felled and rendered helpless; the brutality of the killing; and the extreme nature and number of the victim’s wounds.

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