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 fired a gun from his car toward a park where over a dozen people were playing basketball and hanging out. He was later found asleep in his car in a ditch by a Highway Patrol officer, who arrested him for driving while impaired. He was convicted by a jury of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon. The defendant argued that the trial court erred by admitting three phone calls the defendant made from the jail because they contained hearsay and violated the defendant’s confrontation rights. (1) As to the hearsay argument, the court of appeals concluded that any error was harmless in light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt. (2) As to the alleged violation of the Confrontation Clause, the court adopted the reasoning of a case from the Fourth Circuit, United States v. Jones, 716 F.3d 851 (4th Cir. 2013), and concluded that, despite automated warnings indicating that the calls were being recorded and monitored, the statements made by the woman the defendant was talking to on the jail phone were not intended to bear witness against him, and were therefore not testimonial. Because the statements were not testimonial, their admission did not violate the Confrontation Clause. (3) Next, the court declined to consider whether the trial court committed plain error by admitting, without objection, video interviews in which the defendant discussed prior assault and rape charges with the police. Again, in light of the overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt, the defendant failed to show how the admission of the evidence resulted in a miscarriage of justice or an unfair trial. (4) At sentencing, the trial court did not err by sentencing the defendant as a Class B1 felon upon jury’s general verdict of guilty of second-degree murder when no evidence or jury instruction supported the depraved-heart malice that makes the crime a Class B2 felony. As in State v. Lail, 251 N.C. App. 463 (2017), it was readily apparent from the evidence here that the jury found the defendant guilty of a Class B1 second-degree murder. (5) Finally, the court of appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that his stipulation to a prior conviction identified as “M-PUBLIC DISTURBANCE” as a Class 1 misdemeanor was ambiguous in light of the multiple potential classifications of disorderly conduct. To the contrary, under State v. Arrington, 371 N.C. 518 (2018), when a defendant stipulates to a prior conviction of a particular offense classification, he or she also stipulates to the facts underlying that conviction. The trial court has no duty to enquire further in the absence of clear record evidence suggesting the defendant stipulated to an incorrect classification, and there was no such evidence here.

In this second-degree murder case, the trial court erred by sentencing the defendant as a Class BI felon. The jury unanimously convicted the defendant of second-degree murder. The verdict however was silent as to whether the second-degree murder was a Class BI or B2 offense. The court held that the jury’s general verdict of guilty of second-degree murder was ambiguous for sentencing purposes because, in this case, there was evidence of depraved-heart malice to support a verdict of guilty of a Class B2 second-degree murder. Specifically, there was evidence of the defendant’s reckless use of a rifle. The court distinguished the case from State v. Lail, ___ N.C. App. ___, 795 S.E.2d 401 (2016). And it went on to state:

In order to avoid such ambiguity in the future, we recommend two actions. First, the second degree murder instructions contained as a lesser included offense in N.C.P.I.--Crim. 206.13 should be expanded to explain all the theories of malice that can support a verdict of second degree murder, as set forth in N.C.P.I.--Crim. 206.30A. Secondly, when there is evidence to support more than one theory of malice for second degree murder, the trial court should present a special verdict form that requires the jury to specify the theory of malice found to support a second degree murder conviction.

In this second-degree murder case, the trial court did not err by sentencing the defendant as a Class B1 felon. The defendant argued that the trial court erred because the jury returned a general verdict that failed to specify whether he had been found guilty of a Class B1 or B2 felony. The State proceeded under a deadly weapon implied malice theory rising from the defendant’s alleged use of a butcher knife to slash the victim’s throat. The trial judge instructed the jury on the definitions of express malice and deadly weapon implied malice (B1 second-degree murder) but not on depraved heart malice (B2 second-degree murder). The jury returned a general verdict second-degree murder. The court held that since the jury was not presented with evidence supporting a finding of depraved heart malice, its general verdict was unambiguous and the B1 sentence was proper. It noted however that where the jury is presented with both B2 depraved heart malice and a B1 malice theory a general verdict would be ambiguous. It stated: “in this situation, trial judges . . . should frame a special verdict requiring the jury to specify which malice theory supported it second-degree murder verdict.” In the course of its ruling the court also noted that depraved heart malice is not limited to driving while intoxicated homicide cases.

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