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., 04/21/2024
E.g., 04/21/2024

In this Cumberland County case, defendant appealed the superior court order sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOPP) for two counts of first-degree murder committed while he was a juvenile. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s order. 

In 1998, defendant was convicted of murdering two law enforcement officers and was sentenced to death. Defendant was 17 years old at the time of the murders. Defendant’s convictions were upheld on direct appeal in State v. Golphin, 352 N.C. 364 (2000). After defendant was convicted, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), holding death sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment; Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), holding that a mandatory sentence of LWOPP was unconstitutional for a juvenile; and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), holding that Miller’sprohibition on mandatory LWOPP must be applied retroactively to those already sentenced to mandatory LWOPP. Defendant was initially resentenced to mandatory LWOPP in December of 2005, after filing a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) under Roper. In the current case, defendant filed a MAR in July of 2018, alleging his sentence was unconstitutional under Miller and Montgomery. A sentencing hearing was held in 2022, where the MAR court reviewed the nine mitigating factors from G.S. 15A-1340.19B and sentenced defendant to consecutive sentences of LWOPP. 

The Court of Appeals first explained the scope of its review was abuse of discretion, and that the relevant considerations were the mitigating factors from G.S. 15A-1340.19B(c), along with the additional factor from State v. Kelliher, 381 N.C. 558 (2022), that the sentencing court must make an express finding of “a juvenile’s permanent incorrigibility” before imposing LWOPP. Slip Op. at 12. The court then grouped defendant’s arguments in two categories, (1) that defendant’s sentence of LWOPP should be reversed based on Kelliherbecause he was capable of reform, and (2) the MAR court incorrectly weighed the mitigating factors of G.S. 15A-1340.19B. Taking up (1), the court quickly dispensed with defendant’s arguments, as defendant did not challenge the findings of fact as unsupported by the evidence and they were binding on his appeal.

Because defendant did not challenge the findings of fact, the court moved to (2), and specifically the weight the MAR court gave to each of the nine mitigating factors and the express finding of incorrigibility under Kelliher. A significant portion of the opinion (pages 15 to 30) were spent examining the factors and the weight given by the MAR court to each. The court ultimately concluded that “the Sentencing Order properly addressed each factor as required by [G.S.] 15A-1340.19A and Kelliher.” Id. at 31. After noting the possible differing views on the mitigating impact of the factors, the court found no abuse of discretion and affirmed the order. 

In this Watauga County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree murder for killing his parents one month before he turned eighteen years old, arguing error in sentencing him to two consecutive life sentences without parole. The Court of Appeals majority found no error.

On one day in April of 2019, defendant attacked and killed both of his parents in separate attacks, using a large knife to stab both of them to death. He then spent several hours cleaning the crime scene and attempting to conceal his crimes. Then defendant picked up his younger brother from his grandmother’s house, dropped him off in the home, and stayed with a friend that night. The next day defendant attempted to flee but was caught after crossing into Tennessee. Defendant was found guilty of both counts of first-degree murder by a jury, and the judge sentenced him to consecutive life sentences without parole. 

The Court of Appeals explained that defendant’s argument rested upon G.S. 15A-1340.19B, the statute providing appropriate procedure for sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole, and that his sentencing violated the Eighth Amendment of the federal constitution and Article 1, Section 27 of the state constitution. The court first looked at the Eighth Amendment issue and applicable U.S. Supreme Court precedent, concluding “[t]he procedure employed by the sentencing judge met the requirements of the Eighth Amendment as articulated by the United States Supreme Court in [Jones v. Mississippi, 141 S. Ct. 1307 (2021)] and was at least as robust as the procedure employed by the Mississippi judge in Jones.” Slip Op. at 7. 

Moving to the North Carolina statute and constitutional concerns, the court noted that G.S. 15A-134019B provides the defendant with the opportunity to offer evidence towards eight specific, non-exclusive mitigating factors. Here the court reviewed six factors provided by defendant in his brief and concluded “the sentencing judge considered the evidence presented concerning mitigating factors, including those enumerated in the sentencing statute” and complied with G.S. 15A-1340.19B. Id. at 13. Finally, looking at the North Carolina constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and applicable caselaw, applying State v. Kelliher, 381 N.C. 558, (2022), for the concept that the North Carolina constitution offers broader protection of juvenile offenders than the federal constitution. Id.at 14. Despite this broader protection, defendant was not entitled to reversal, as “the trial court expressly found that ‘it did not believe that there is a likelihood of rehabilitation in confinement’ and that Defendant’s crimes ‘demonstrate a condition of irreparable corruption and permanent incorrigibility.’” Id

Judge Arrowood provided a lengthy dissent discussing the applicable constitutional requirements and caselaw precedent, and would have vacated and remanded for resentencing because the trial court violated G.S. 15A-1340.19B, the Eighth Amendment, and Article 1, Section 27. 

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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