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., 06/17/2024
E.g., 06/17/2024

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court (1) affirmed the Court of Appeals holding that Rule 404(b) testimony was properly admitted, but (2) reversed the Court of Appeals decision vacating defendant’s sentence for improper consideration of the choice to pursue a jury trial, reinstating defendant’s original sentence. 

From August-September of 2015, defendant, a middle-school chorus teacher, repeatedly raped and assaulted an eleven-year old student in the bathroom of the middle school as the student took her daily trips to the school nurse for medication. The student eventually reported the details of the assaults, leading to defendant’s trial for statutory rape and statutory sexual offense with a child in October of 2019. At trial, defendant filed a motion in limine to prevent the State from admitting testimony under Rule of Evidence 404(b) regarding defendant’s alleged rape of a previous student, but the trial court denied his motion. After the jury found defendant guilty of all charges, he was sentenced to three consecutive active sentences. During sentencing, the trial court addressed defendant regarding the testimony of the two victims and the traumatizing nature of the proceedings. At the end of this statement, the trial court said “[t]hey didn’t have a choice and you, [defendant], had a choice.” Slip Op. at 16. Defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals majority found no error in admitting the Rule 404(b) testimony, but did find that the trial court improperly considered defendant’s choice to pursue a jury trial when imposing his sentence. The State subsequently appealed based upon the divided panel, leading to the current opinion.  

Taking up (1), the Supreme Court explained that “Rule 404(b) has been characterized as a rule of inclusion, and evidence of prior bad acts is admissible unless the only reason that the evidence is introduced is to show the defendant’s propensity for committing a crime like the act charged.” Id. at 8. However, prior acts must be sufficiently similar and contain “some unusual facts that go to a purpose other than propensity” common to both crimes to be admissible under Rule 404(b). Id. at 13, quoting State v. Beckelheimer, 366 N.C. 127, 132 (2012). Here, the State offered testimony from a victim who was one of defendant’s chorus students in February of 2015. The victim testified that defendant raped her in his apartment while he was taking her to practice for a competition. The State offered this Rule 404(b) testimony to show defendant’s “intent, motive, plan, and design to sexually assault middle school students from schools where he was a teacher.” Id. at 10. Analyzing seven similarities and unique facts shared by assaults, the Court noted the age of the children, defendant’s use of his position as a teacher to gain access, and the style of intercourse defendant attempted with the children. The Court explained the proper analysis “involves focusing on the similarities and not the differences between the two incidents,” and concluded that admission of the Rule 404(b) testimony was not error. Id. at 13. 

Turning to (2), the Court first noted the strong protection for an accused’s right to a trial by jury, and the necessity of a new sentencing hearing if the trial court imposed a sentence “at least in part because defendant . . . insisted on a trial by jury.” Id. at 15, quoting State v. Boone, 293 N.C. 702, 712 (1977). The issue in the current case was whether the “choice” referenced in the sentencing hearing was defendant’s decision to plead not guilty and pursue a jury trial. The Court examined relevant precedent and explained that the statement must be reviewed with the entire record. Here, reviewing the entirety of the trial court’s statement, it was unclear if the trial court was referring to defendant’s choice to pursue a jury trial or to “the egregious nature of [defendant]’s crimes and his decision to commit those crimes.” Id. at 20. The Court concluded that this ambiguity did not overcome the “presumption of regularity” enjoyed by the trial court’s sentence. Id. This led the Court to reinstate defendant’s original sentence. 

State v. Pinkerton, 365 N.C. 6 (Feb. 4, 2011)

In a per curiam opinion, the court reversed, for the reasons stated in the dissenting opinion below, the decision of the court of appeals in State v. Pinkerton, 205 N.C. App. 490 (July 20, 2010). The court of appeals had held, over a dissent, that when sentencing the defendant in a child sexual assault case, the trial court impermissibly considered the defendant’s exercise of his right to trial by jury. After the jury returned a guilty verdict and the defendant was afforded the right to allocution, the trial court stated that “if you truly cared–if you had one ounce of care in your heart about that child–you wouldn’t have put that child through this.” Instead, according to the trial court, defendant “would have pled guilty, and you didn’t.” The trial court stated: “I’m not punishing you for not pleading guilty . . . I would have rewarded you for pleading guilty.” The dissenting judge found no indication of improper motivation by the trial court judge in imposing the defendant’s sentence.

In this Wake County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree rape of a child and first-degree sexual offense with a child based on error in the admission of testimony regarding a prior alleged assault and in sentencing. The Court of Appeals found no error in the admission of evidence under North Carolina Rule of Evidence 404(b), but improper considerations in sentencing that justified remanding the matter for resentencing. 

The State filed a pretrial notice of Rule 404(b) evidence, and defendant countered with a motion in limine to preclude the State from introducing any evidence related to sexual assaults in Durham, NC. At trial, the State offered testimony from the victim in this matter regarding the sexual assaults she experienced in or around August or September of 2015. The State then called the Rule 404(b) witness to testify about an alleged sexual assault by defendant that she experienced in in February of 2015, in Durham. Both the victim and the other witness were students at middle schools where defendant was a teacher. The trial court allowed testimony from the Rule 404(b) witness in front of the jury. 

The Court of Appeals considered defendant’s argument that the Rule 404(b) testimony was not similar to the crime charged and was unduly prejudicial, noting that Rule 404(b) is generally an inclusive rule if the evidence is relevant to any issue besides propensity to commit the crime charged. Slip Op. at ¶ 17. Additionally, the court noted that North Carolina precedent regarding the admissibility of Rule 404(b) evidence in sexual assault cases has been “very liberal.” Slip Op. at ¶ 20, quoting State v. White, 331 N.C. 604, 612 (1992). Because the crimes charged in this matter and the assault described by the Rule 404(b) witness were sufficiently similar and not too remote in time, the court found no error in admitting the testimony. 

Considering defendant’s second argument regarding sentencing, the court found error due to the trial court’s improper consideration of defendant’s choice to receive a trial by jury. At the sentencing hearing, the trial court addressed defendant regarding the victim and 404(b) witness, saying “[a]nd in truth, they get traumatized again by being here, but it’s absolutely necessary when a defendant pleads not guilty. They didn’t have a choice and you, Mr. Pickens, had a choice.” Slip Op. at ¶ 32. Immediately after this quote, the trial court imposed consecutive sentences. The Court of Appeals found a clear inference that the trial court imposed consecutive sentences because defendant did not plead guilty and went to trial. As such, the court vacated the sentence and remanded for resentencing. 

Judge Murphy dissented by separate opinion.

Although the trial court erred when it based its imposition of sentence on the defendant’s exercise of his right to appeal, the issue was moot because the defendant had served his sentence and could not be resentenced. Although the 120-day sentence was within the statutorily permissible range, the trial court changed its judgment from a split sentence of 30 days followed by probation to an active term in response to the defendant’s decision to appeal.

The trial court did not improperly base its sentencing decision on the defendant’s decision to reject an offered plea agreement and go to trial. However, the court repeated its admonition that “judges must take care to avoid using language that could give rise to an appearance that improper factors have played a role in the judge's decision-making process even when they have not.”

Where the defendant’s sentence was within the presumptive range, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by imposing an intermediate sanction of a term of special probation of 135 days in the Division of Adult Correction. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the sentence was a discriminatory sentence predicated on poverty, namely that the trial court chose a sentence with active time as opposed to regular probation because the defendant would never make enough money at his current job to pay monies as required.

The defendant’s sentence was impermissibly based on his exercise of his constitutional rights. At the sentencing hearing, the trial court noted more than once that the defendant "was given an opportunity to plead guilty[,]" and that his failure to plead was one of the "factors that the Court considers when the Court fashions judgment." The trial court also admonished the defendant and defense counsel for "unnecessarily" protracting the trial for 6 days when it should have only taken 2 days.

The defendant’s sentence was impermissibly based on his exercise of his constitutional rights. At the sentencing hearing, the trial court noted more than once that the defendant "was given an opportunity to plead guilty[,]" and that his failure to plead was one of the "factors that the Court considers when the Court fashions judgment." The trial court also admonished the defendant and defense counsel for "unnecessarily" protracting the trial for 6 days when it should have only taken 2 days.

Ordering a new sentencing hearing where there was a reasonable inference that the trial judge ran the defendant’s ten felony sentences consecutively in part because of the defendant’s rejection of a plea offer and insistence on going to trial. Even though the sentences were elevated to Class C felonies because of habitual felon status, the trial judge could have consolidated them into a single judgment. At a pretrial hearing and in response to an offer by the prosecutor to recommend a ten-year sentence, the defendant asked the trial court to consider a sentence of five years in prison and five years of probation. The trial court responded saying, “So I’m just telling you up front that the offer the State made is probably the best thing.” The defendant declined the state’s offer, went to trial, and was convicted. At sentencing, the trial judge stated: “[w]ay back when we dealt with that plea different times and, you know, you told me . . . what you wanted to do, and I told you that the best offer you’re gonna get was that ten-year thing, you know.” This statement created an inference arises that the trial court based its sentence at least in part on defendant’s failure to accept the State’s plea offer.

Rejecting the defendant’s argument that the trial court imposed a greater sentence because the defendant chose to proceed to trial rather than plead guilty. At a conference between the judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel, the judge commented that if the parties were engaged in plea discussions, he would be amenable to a probationary sentence. Defense counsel objected to the judge’s comments, stating that it could be inferred that the judge would be less likely to give the defendant probation if he did not plead guilty. The judge stated that he had not meant to make any such implication, but rather to encourage the parties to enter plea negotiations. The defendant failed to show that it can be reasonably inferred that the defendant’s sentence was improperly based, even in part, on his insistence on a jury trial.

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