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., 07/24/2024
E.g., 07/24/2024

In this Gaston County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals decision finding no error when the trial court declined to conduct further inquiry into defendant’s capacity after determining that he voluntarily absented himself by jumping from a balcony on the sixth day of trial. 

In May of 2018, defendant forced his way into the home of his ex-girlfriend and held her at gunpoint for several hours, raping her twice. Police eventually forced their way into the home and successfully rescued the ex-girlfriend from defendant. Defendant came for trial on charges of rape, burglary, kidnapping, sexual offense, possession of a firearm by a felon, and violation of a protective order beginning on December 9, 2019. After defendant decided not to testify or present evidence on his own behalf, the trial court conducted two colloquies with defendant to determine if he was making the choices freely and intelligently. The court conducted these colloquies on Friday, December 13, and again on Monday, December 16, 2019. After the second colloquy, the jury was brought back and heard closing arguments from both sides, and trial proceedings concluded for the day. On the morning of December 17, 2019, defendant leaped off a mezzanine in the jail, breaking his leg and ribs. Defense counsel then moved under G.S. 15A-1002 to challenge defendant’s competency. After hearing from defense counsel and the state, the trial court determined that defendant voluntarily absented himself from the trial, and the trial moved forward, ultimately resulting in defendant’s convictions. A unanimous panel at the Court of Appeals found no error by the trial court, distinguishing the circumstances from State v. Sides, 376 N.C. 449 (2020). 

On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to conduct an inquiry into his capacity to proceed, basing his arguments on G.S. §§ 15A-1001 & -1002, and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court reviewed these interrelated arguments de novo, first looking at the statutory claim. Here, defense counsel’s initial motion was sufficient to trigger G.S. 15A-1002’s hearing procedures, but the court explained the section only provides “sparse guidance regarding the procedural and substantive requirements of the competency hearing.” Slip Op. at 29. The court concluded that the inquiry here, where the trial court heard from both parties and accepted testimony on the events, was “statutorily sufficient because defendant was provided an opportunity to present any and all evidence relating to his competency that he was prepared to present.” Id. at 30. Even though the trial court did not consider whether defendant had attempted suicide by his jump, this did not show a failure to consider defendant’s capacity, as “[s]uicidality does not automatically render one incompetent,” and defendant could be suicidal without being incompetent, or vice versa. Id. at 31. 

The court next moved to the Due Process Clause argument, explaining that the requirements for a constitutional competency hearing are more involved, but are only triggered when the trial court is presented with substantive evidence of defendant’s incompetence. Here, “the determinative issue [was] whether the trial court in the instant case had substantial evidence that defendant may have lacked capacity at the time of his apparent suicide attempt.” Id. at 36. The court first noted that, as explained in the statutory inquiry, defendant’s suicide attempt on its own did not represent substantial evidence of incompetence. Defendant pointed to three categories of evidence showing incompetence: (1) his actions before the arrest, including erratic behavior, the use of a racial slur, and the nature of his crimes, (2) his suicide attempt, and (3) testimony that defendant was heavily medicated and had trouble communicating in the hospital after his attempt at suicide. The court rejected number (3) immediately as it related to after the attempt, and again noted that number (2) by itself did not support incompetence. That left the evidence of number (1), which the court found was inadequate to show substantial evidence of incompetence. Additionally, the trial court was able to observe and interact with defendant over the course of the trial, and received evidence provided by defense counsel at the hearing, none of which indicated a history of mental illness or inability to participate or understand the legal proceedings prior to his suicide attempt. The court concluded that no substantial evidence existed to justify further inquiry. 

Justice Earls dissented, and would have held that the trial court held an insufficient hearing under G.S. 15A-1002 and had sufficient evidence to require a competency hearing under the Due Process Clause. Id. at 45. 

The defendant was on trial for four counts of embezzlement when she attempted to commit suicide by ingesting 60 Xanax tablets during an evening recess. The defendant was found unresponsive, taken to the hospital, and involuntarily committed for evaluation and treatment. The trial was postponed until the following week, at which time the trial judge reviewed medical records and conferred with counsel before ruling that the defendant was voluntarily absent by her own actions and the trial could continue without her. The defendant was convicted by the jury, sentenced when she returned to court at a later date, and appealed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to conduct a competency hearing sua sponte before declaring her voluntarily absent. A divided Court of Appeals found no error, since the trial court is only required to examine competency sua sponte if there is substantial evidence before it that raises a bona fide doubt about the defendant’s competence. Based on a review of the record as a whole, the appellate court was not persuaded that the defendant’s suicide attempt was a result of mental illness rather than a voluntary act intended to avoid facing prison.

The state Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. The higher court concluded that by “skipping over the issue of competency and simply assuming that defendant’s suicide attempt was a voluntary act that constituted a waiver of her right to be present during her trial” the trial court and the Court of Appeals majority had “put the cart before the horse.” In non-capital trials, a defendant may waive his or her right to be present, but the defendant must be competent to do so. In this case, there was substantial evidence before the court that raised a bona fide doubt about the defendant’s competence. In addition to the suicide attempt itself, the court was aware that the defendant had been involuntarily committed due to a high risk of self-harm, and the court reviewed additional medical records regarding the defendant’s history of mood disorders and prescribed medications. The trial court began an inquiry into defendant’s competence by ordering the medical records and discussing the issue with counsel, but erred when it stopped short of conducting a formal competency hearing before declaring her voluntarily absent. Finally, due to the amount of time that has elapsed since the trial, a retrospective competency hearing was no longer feasible; therefore, the conviction was vacated and the case remanded for a new trial – if the defendant is found competent.

Justice Morgan dissented, joined by Justices Newby and Ervin, and would have held that the evidence before the trial court did not raise the same doubts about the defendant’s competence as those that were present in the case precedent cited by the majority, and therefore the trial court did not err by declaring her voluntarily absent.

In this Burke County case, defendant appealed the partial denial of his motion for appropriate relief (MAR), arguing he was entitled to a new trial because the trial court did not conduct a sua sponte inquiry into his competency after he overdosed and fell into a stupor during jury deliberations. The Court of Appeals affirmed the superior court order on the MAR and denied a new trial.

Defendant first appealed his conviction in State v. Minyard, 231 N.C. App. 605, disc. rev. denied, 367 N.C. 495 (2014). Defendant was convicted in 2012 for five counts of indecent liberties with a minor and first-degree sexual offense, as well as habitual felon status. During the jury deliberations and outside the presence of the jury, defendant managed to consume fifteen Klonopin along with alcohol and suffered an overdose in the courtroom. Defendant was treated by emergency medical services and missed the remainder of deliberations as well as the verdict. Defendant was present for the habitual felon status and sentencing portions of his proceeding. After his conviction, defendant appealed and ultimately filed several MARs, none of which resulted in a new trial. 

Defendant’s MAR giving rise to the current case was filed in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Sides, 376 N.C. 449 (2020). Based upon the reasoning in that case, the superior court judge considering the MAR only found error with the trial court’s failure to conduct a competency hearing prior to the habitual felon and sentencing phases of the proceeding, not the initial trial. As a result, the MAR order vacated defendant’s habitual felon status and sentence, but denied the request for a new trial. The State did not cross-appeal the habitual felon and sentencing issues. 

Taking up the MAR order, the Court of Appeals waded into the caselaw surrounding a defendant’s competency and the right to be voluntarily absent from trial. The court examined the facts in Sides, where the defendant took sixty Xanax tablets on the third day of trial; a doctor subsequently recommended she be involuntarily committed, and a magistrate agreed. The Sides decision held “that while a defendant may voluntarily waive the constitutional right to be present at trial, the defendant may only waive the right when she is competent.” Slip Op. at 12. In Sides, the trial court skipped the important determination of the defendant’s competency before assuming that she voluntarily took an act to absent herself from trial, and should have conducted a competency hearing once it was presented with “substantial evidence” of the defendant’s incompetence. Id. at 12-13, quoting Sides. However, in State v. Flow, ___ N.C. ___ (Apr. 28, 2023), the Supreme Court drew a distinction between a defendant who jumped off a jailhouse balcony and the defendant in Sides. In Flow, the defendant’s capacity had not been called into question before his jump, and the evidence considered by the trial court did not indicate that the defendant was incompetent. As a result, the Flow trial court found, “implicitly at least,” that the defendant was competent when he acted voluntarily to waive his right to be present at trial, a decision the Supreme Court upheld. Slip Op. at 15, quoting Flow

Looking to the current case, the court concluded that “[n]o substantial evidence tended to alert the court or counsel nor cast doubt on Defendant’s competency prior to his voluntary actions,” and “[u]nlike in Sides, the trial court was not presented with any evidence of a history of Defendant’s mental illness.” Id. at 15-16. The court concluded that Sides was inapplicable and defendant’s request for a new trial was properly denied. The court then determined, without deciding whether an error occurred, that any violation was not a structural error, and was harmless error beyond a reasonable doubt. Affirming the MAR order, the court remanded for habitual felon proceedings and resentencing. 

In this Rutherford County case, defendant appealed his convictions for assault by strangulation, habitual misdemeanor assault, and habitual felon status, arguing the trial court erred by proceeding in his absence during one day of the trial. The Court of Appeals found no error and affirmed the judgment. 

On November 15, 2021, defendant’s charges came to trial; on the first day of proceedings defendant told the court he was not ready for his case to go to trial, and the trial court adjourned for the day. The next morning, defendant refused to leave his cell, despite the trial court addressing defendant via defense counsel’s cell phone. After two colloquies with defendant over the phone, the trial court made several findings on the record and announced the trial would go forward without defendant. The state called several witnesses and trial moved forward, although the trial court took a recess and again attempted to convince defendant to attend trial. After the last of the state’s witnesses were called, the court recessed again, and at this point, defendant decided to attend the proceedings. Defendant was present for the last day of proceedings, November 17, 2021, and the same day the jury returned guilty verdicts. 

On appeal, defendant argued that he did not validly waive his right to be present and he was not made fully aware of his obligation to be present at trial. The Court of Appeals first turned to State v. Pope, 257 N.C. 326 (1962), to explain that the defendant has a right to be present in criminal prosecutions, and the power to waive that right. But to effectively waive that right, precedent requires that “’the defendant must be aware of the processes taking place, of his right and of his obligation to be present, and he must have no sound reason for remaining away.’” Slip Op. at 8-9, quoting State v. Sides, 376 N.C. 449, 458 (2020). Here, the court found that defendant’s behavior expressed a waiver of his right to be present.

The court also considered defendant’s argument, based on State v. Shaw, 218 N.C. App. 607 (2012), that there is no general right for a defendant to be absent from trial, and the trial court’s statements to defendant were misleading in that they suggested he could choose not to attend. The court disagreed with this interpretation, noting “Shaw recognized the long-standing rule that a defendant may waive his right to be present and the trial court may compel the defendant’s presence if the trial court deems it advisable to do so.” Slip Op. at 10. Here, the trial court correctly advised defendant that it was his choice to attend the trial, and defendant was not being misled or induced not to attend. 

The court also found that the trial court’s procedures complied with G.S. 15A-1032, the statute which permits the trial court to remove a disruptive defendant. Even though the trial court was not ordering defendant’s removal in this case, the trial court entered into the record the reasons for proceeding without the defendant, and instructed the jury not to consider the defendant’s absence in determining his guilt. The trial court also made multiple attempts to communicate with defendant through defense counsel during breaks in the proceedings. The Court of Appeals found this was a separate ground to affirm the trial court. 

The trial court violated the defendant’s constitutional right to presence at every stage of the trial by failing to disclose a note from the jury to the defendant. However, the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

Where the defendant voluntarily ingested a large quantity of sedative, hypnotic or anxiolytic medications and alcohol during the jury deliberation stage of his non-capital trial, he voluntarily waived his constitutional right to be present.

The trial court did not err by denying a motion to dismiss asserting that the defendant was deprived of his constitutional rights due to his involuntary absence at trial. The defendant was missing from the courtroom on the second day of trial and reappeared on the third day. To explain his absence he offered two items. First, the fact that his friend Stacie Wilson called defense counsel to say that the defendant was in the hospital suffering from stomach pains. Defense counsel did not know who Stacie Wilson was, what hospital the defendant was in, or any other information. Second, the defendant offered a note from a hospital indicating that he had been treated there at some point. The note did not contain a date or time of treatment. The defendant failed to sufficiently explain his absence and his right to be present was waived.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he had an absolute right to waive the right to be present at trial. The court noted that no such right exists.

The trial court did not err when, after the defendant failed to appear during trial, he explained to the jury that the trial would proceed in the defendant’s absence. The trial judge instructed the jury that the defendant’s absence was of no concern with regard to its job of hearing the evidence and rendering a fair and impartial verdict.

(1) The trial court did not err by failing to instruct the jury about the defendant’s absence from the habitual felon phase of the trial. Because the trial court did not order the defendant removed from the courtroom, G.S. 15A-1032 did not apply. Rather, the defendant asked to be removed. (2) The trial court did not err by accepting the defendant’s oral waiver of her right to be present during portions of her trial.

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