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., 09/17/2021
E.g., 09/17/2021

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.

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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