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., 10/21/2021
E.g., 10/21/2021

The defendant, 17 years old at the time of his crime, was charged with first-degree murder based on his role in a murder committed by one of his acquaintances during a robbery. Trial testimony indicated that the defendant orchestrated the killing. He was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder. At sentencing, the trial judge reviewed mitigating circumstances as required by G.S. 15A-1340.19B(c) to decide whether to impose a sentence of life without parole or life with the possibility of parole after 25 years. Among other findings, the trial court found no evidence of particular immaturity, no evidence of mental illness, and “no evidence . . . that the defendant would benefit from rehabilitation and confinement other than that of other . . . persons who may be incarcerated for . . . first degree murder.” The trial court concluded that any mitigating factors were “outweighed by other evidence in this case of the offense and the manner in which it was committed” and sentenced the defendant to life without parole. The court of appeals vacated the sentence, concluding that the trial court applied an incorrect legal standard by focusing on the nature of the offense and not whether the defendant was, within the meaning of Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), “the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.” The trial court also erred by comparing the young defendant to the broader class of all persons who may be incarcerated for first-degree murder, including adults. The court of appeals remanded the case to the trial court for resentencing consistent with its opinion, emphasizing that the mitigation evidence put on by the defendant (including his youth, his violent home environment, his potential for rehabilitation) “seemingly implicated every factor Miller identified as counseling against sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole.” Slip op. at 24 (emphasis in original). A dissenting judge would have affirmed the sentence of life without parole.

State v. Williams, ___ N.C. App. ___, 820 S.E.2d 521 (Sept. 18, 2018) review granted, ___ N.C. ___, 828 S.E.2d 23 (Jun 11 2019)

In a case where the trial court found that the juvenile’s likelihood of rehabilitation was uncertain and sentenced him to life in prison without parole, the court vacated and remanded for the defendant to be resentenced to life with the possibility of parole. The defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder. He was 17 years old at the time of the crimes. The trial court sentenced the defendant to two consecutive terms of life in prison without the possibility of parole. Following the United States Supreme Court’s Miller decision, the defendant sought and obtained a new sentencing hearing. After considering the evidence and arguments by counsel at the new hearing, the trial court entered an order that concluded, in part: “There is no certain prognosis of Defendant[’]s possibility of rehabilitation. The speculation of Defendant’s ability to be rehabilitated can only be given minimal weight as a mitigating factor.” The trial court sentenced the defendant to two consecutive sentences of life without parole and the defendant appealed.

            Citing state Supreme Court precedent, the court quickly rejected the defendant’s argument that G.S. 15A-1340.19B (the post-Miller sentencing scheme for juveniles) is unconstitutional on its face.

However, the court agreed with the defendant that the trial court’s finding that the defendant’s potential for rehabilitation was speculative rendered him ineligible for life without parole. The court noted that the case required it to address a question of first impression: whether the Supreme Court’s holdings require trial courts to determine, as a threshold matter, whether a juvenile defendant is eligible for such punishment independent of other relevant factors, or whether it merely identifies additional factors that the trial court must consider as it weighs the totality of circumstances in making its sentencing decision. Considering the case law, the court stated:

[W]e hold that whether a defendant qualifies as an individual within the class of offenders who are irreparably corrupt is a threshold determination that is necessary before a life sentence without parole may be imposed by the trial court. This holding is not inconsistent with the North Carolina Supreme Court’s rejection of a specific factfinding requirement. Rather, we hold that, when a trial court does make a finding about a juvenile offender’s possibility of rehabilitation that is inconsistent with the limited class of offenders defined by the United States Supreme Court, a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is unconstitutional as applied to that offender.

Turning to the case at hand, the court concluded that “the trial court erred by imposing a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole after making a finding contrary to the defined class of irreparably corrupt offenders described in our precedent.” The trial court made an explicit finding that “there is no certain prognosis” for the defendant’s potential for rehabilitation. This finding directly conflicts with the limitation of life in prison without parole to juveniles who are “irreparably corrupt” and “permanently incorrigible.” It concluded: “Because the trial court made an explicit finding contrary to a determination that Defendant is one of those rarest of juvenile offenders for whom rehabilitation is impossible and a worthless endeavor, we hold the trial court erred by imposing a life sentence without the possibility of parole.”

In this case involving a defendant who was 15 years old at the time of his crimes, and as conceded by the State, the trial court failed to make sufficient findings to support two sentences of life without parole. On appeal the defendant argued that although the trial court listed each of the statutory mitigating factors under G.S. 15A-1340.19B(c), it failed to expressly state the evidence supporting or opposing those mitigating factors as required by relevant case law. The State conceded that this was error and the court remanded.

(1) Because the trial court failed to make statutorily required findings of fact addressing statutory mitigating factors prior to sentencing the juvenile defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, a new sentencing hearing was required. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon. The trial court sentenced the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole on the murder charge. Immediately after judgment was entered, the defendant gave oral notice of appeal. Almost one month later, the trial court entered an order making findings of fact based on G.S. 15A-1340.19B to support its determination that the defendant should be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, as opposed to a lesser sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. The court agreed with the defendant that the trial court erred by sentencing him to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, where it failed to make findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of the sentence. (2) Because the trial court had no jurisdiction to enter findings of fact after the defendant gave notice of appeal, the court vacated the order entered upon these findings. Once the defendant gave notice of appeal, the trial court’s jurisdiction was divested. Note: one judge concurred, but wrote separately to note concern about how the trial courts are addressing discretionary determinations of whether juvenile should be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Where the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder on the theories of felony murder and premeditation and deliberation, the trial court violated G.S. 15A-1340.19C(a) by imposing a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole without assessing mitigating factors, requiring a remand for a new sentencing hearing. The trial court’s findings of fact and order failed to comply with the statutory mandate requiring it to “include findings on the absence or presence of any mitigating factors[.]” The trial court’s order made “cursory, but adequate findings as to some mitigating circumstances but failed to address other factors at all. The court added:

We also note that portions of the findings of fact are more recitations of testimony, rather than evidentiary or ultimate findings of fact. The better practice is for the trial court to make evidentiary findings of fact that resolve any conflicts in the evidence, and then to make ultimate findings of fact that apply the evidentiary findings to the relevant mitigating factors . . . . If there is no evidence presented as to a particular mitigating factor, then the order should so state, and note that as a result, that factor was not considered. (citations omitted).

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