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., 09/21/2021
E.g., 09/21/2021
State v. Lane, 365 N.C. 7 (Mar. 11, 2011)

In a capital murder case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by excluding expert testimony from a neuropharmacologist and research scientist who studies the effects of drugs and alcohol on the brain, proffered by the defense as relevant to the jury’s determination of the reliability of the defendant’s confession. The expert would have testified concerning the defendant’s pattern of alcohol use and the potential consequences of alcohol withdrawal, including seizures. However, the expert repeatedly stated that he could not opine as to whether the confession was false or true or what the defendant’s condition was at the time of the confession. Evidence had been presented indicating that the defendant was not intoxicated at the time of the interrogation and that he was an alcoholic. Given this evidence, the jury could assess how alcohol withdrawal affected the reliability of the confession, if at all. As such, the expert’s testimony would not assist the jury in understanding the evidence or determining a fact in issue under Rule 702.

In this sex offense with a child case, the trial court did not err by prohibiting the defendant from introducing evidence of the immigration status of the victim’s mother, a testifying witness, on the basis that the evidence was irrelevant under Rule 401.  The mother’s immigration status did not have any tendency to make the existence of a fact of consequence to the determination of the action more probable or less probable.  Further, the trial court did not err by overruling the defendant’s objection to the mother testifying that the defendant had refused to be tested for herpes after it was discovered that the child victim had herpes.  This testimony was not unfairly prejudicial under Rule 403.  Finally, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of first degree statutory sexual offense for insufficient evidence.  The victim testified that the defendant touched her with his fingers “in the inside” in “the place where [she] go[es] pee,” and this testimony was sufficient evidence of a sexual act for purposes of the offense.

Judge Murphy concurred in the result only, writing a separate opinion to discuss when a witness’s immigration status and knowledge of U-Visas may be relevant for cross-examination, as well as other issues in the case.

An officer initiated a voluntary encounter with the defendant sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car. The officer detected a marijuana odor, and the defendant admitted he was smoking a blunt and handed it to the officer. Once backup arrived, the officer asked the defendant to step out of the car and searched him incident to arrest. Upon discovering a “wad of money” totaling thousands of dollars and asking defendant about it, the defendant fled on foot. During the resulting pursuit and takedown, the defendant attempted to take the officer’s firearm and also placed a bag of white powder in his mouth. Believing the defendant was destroying evidence and putting himself at risk, the officer forcibly removed the bag from the defendant’s mouth. The defendant resisted and bit the officer’s finger hard enough to break the skin. The powder later field-tested positive for cocaine. At the defendant’s subsequent trial for assault inflicting serious injury on an officer and attempted common law robbery, testimony about the bag of white powder and the positive field test was admitted. The defendant was convicted of lesser charges, and pleaded guilty to attaining habitual felon status. 

The appellate court held that admission of evidence about the field test result was error. The test result was irrelevant since the test was conducted after the assault and attempted robbery were over, and defendant was not charged with any controlled substance offenses. Testimony about the officer’s belief that the powder was cocaine was relevant to explain why the officer believed it was necessary to remove the bag from the defendant’s mouth, but the confirmatory test had no relevance to establishing any of the elements of the charged offenses. However, the error was not prejudicial in light of all the other evidence of defendant’s guilt as to the charged offenses.

Defendant’s remaining argument, alleging a fatal variance in the habitual felon indictment, was waived since the defendant pleaded guilty. The error, which incorrectly listed one of the defendant’s convictions as occurring in superior court rather than district court, did not constitute an exceptional circumstance that warranted allowing discretionary review under Rule 2.

In a case where the defendant was found guilty of obtaining property by false pretenses and insurance fraud involving a claim regarding a stolen truck, although the trial court erred by admitting evidence of a truck later found in a river, the error did not rise to the level of plain error. The defendant applied for a commercial automobile insurance policy for coverage for his Dodge Ram. The application asked in part whether the defendant had been convicted of or pleaded guilty to any felony during the last 10 years. A felony conviction would preclude issuance of a commercial insurance policy, per company regulations. The defendant reviewed and signed the application, falsely answering this question, “no”; the defendant had in fact pleaded guilty to a felony in 2006. The defendant was issued a commercial automobile insurance policy that included theft protection. Five days after obtaining coverage, the defendant reported the Ram stolen. National General Insurance sent the defendant an affidavit to complete, sign, and have notarized. The defendant filled in most of the requested information but left some spaces blank, including one inquiring about “major repairs since purchase.” The defendant did not disclose that the Ram had been in an accident, but it was discovered by the company during its investigation of the theft. Once confronted about it, the defendant disclosed the repairs done to the vehicle. North Carolina Department of Insurance investigator Tyler Braswell was contacted by the police department to assist with locating the Ram. After the investigation, National General issued the defendant two checks, each for $11,000 on the claim. However, it attempted to stop payment on both after they were mailed, when its underwriting department determined that the defendant’s omission to disclose his prior felony conviction required the insurance policy to be rescinded. After a year, Braswell asked the police department for help searching a river for the vehicle. They looked in the area near a bridge where the defendant was known to keep vehicles and where the repairs to the Ram had been made. A submerged Dodge Ram was located without a license plate, but with damage on the front end. Officials were however unable to tow the truck out of the water. Braswell later discovered that the Ram had been towed out of the river at the defendant’s request. The tower testified that it was a Dodge which appeared to have been in the river for “awhile.” No license plate or VIN number from the recovered vehicle was identified or noted. The defendant was charged with one count of obtaining property by false pretenses and one count of insurance fraud. The defendant moved to exclude all evidence related to the truck found in the river. The trial court agreed in part and allowed the evidence only for the limited purpose of proof of the defendant’s intent to commit insurance fraud. The defendant was found guilty of both charges. He appealed.

            On appeal the defendant argued that evidence regarding the truck found in the river was not relevant to the insurance fraud charge. The alleged false statement was the defendant’s failure to disclose on the affidavit of vehicle theft that the vehicle had major repairs since purchase. The court rejected the State’s argument that evidence of the submerged vehicle falls under the chain of circumstance rationale. It further concluded that evidence of the submerged truck does not have any tendency to make any fact of the charged insurance fraud of failing to disclose major repairs more or less probable. The trial court thus erred in admitting the evidence. The court found however that the error did not rise to the level of plain error.

(1) In this first-degree murder case, the trial court did not err by declining to give the defendant’s requested special jury instruction regarding potential bias of a State’s witness. Because the issue involves the trial court’s choice of language in jury instructions, the standard of review was abuse of discretion. With respect to witness Brown, the defendant requested a special jury instruction stating: “There is evidence which tends to show that a witness testified with the hope that their testimony would convince the prosecutor to recommend a charge reduction. If you find that the witness testified for this reason, in whole or in part, you should examine this testimony with great care and caution. If, after doing so, you believe the testimony, in whole or in part, you should treat what you believe the same as any other believable evidence.” The trial court denied the requested special instruction and gave the pattern jury instruction on interested witnesses and informants, N.C.P.I. 104.20; 104.30, and the general pattern jury instruction concerning witness credibility, N.C.P.I. 101.15. Considering the facts of the case, the court found that the trial court’s charge to the jury, taken as a whole, was sufficient to address the concerns motivating the defendant’s requested instruction. The entire jury charge was sufficient to apprise the jury that they could consider whether Brown was interested, biased, or not credible; was supported by the evidence; and was in “substantial conformity” with the instruction requested by the defendant. The court further noted that the defendant’s requested instruction—that Brown testified with the hope that his testimony would convince the prosecutor to recommend a charge reduction—was not supported by the law or the evidence; there was no possibility that Brown could receive any charge reduction because he had no pending charges at the time of his testimony. Even if the trial court erred with respect to the jury instruction, the defendant could not demonstrate prejudice.

(2) In this murder case, the trial court did not err by allowing a State’s witness to testify, over objection, about a jailhouse attack. Witness Brown testified that he was transferred to the county courthouse to testify for the State at a pretrial hearing. When he arrived, the defendant—who was present inside a holding cell--threatened Brown and made a motion with his hands “like he was going to cut me. He was telling me I was dead.” After Brown testified at the pretrial hearing, he was taken back to the jail and placed in a pod across from the defendant, separated by a glass window. The defendant stared at Brown through the window and appeared to be “talking trash.” A few minutes later “somebody came to him and threatened him” for testifying against the defendant. Soon after Brown returned to his cell, the same person who had threatened him moments earlier came into the cell and assaulted Brown, asking him if he was telling on the defendant. On appeal the defendant argued that evidence of the jailhouse attack was both irrelevant and unduly prejudicial.

            The evidence regarding the jailhouse attack was relevant. The defendant’s primary argument on appeal was that there was no evidence that the defendant knew about, suggested, or encouraged the attack. The court disagreed noting, among other things that the defendant stared at Brown through the window immediately before the assailant approached and threatened Brown, and that the assailant asked Brown if he was telling on the defendant. This testimony “clearly suggests” that the defendant “was, at minimum, aware of the attack upon Brown or may have encouraged it.” Evidence of attempts to influence a witness by threats or intimidation is relevant. Additionally, Brown testified that he did not want to be at trial because of safety concerns. A witness’s testimony about his fear of the defendant and the reasons for this fear is relevant to the witness’s credibility. Thus the challenged testimony is clearly relevant in that it was both probative of the defendant’s guilt and of Brown’s credibility.

            The court went on to find that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the challenged testimony under Rule 403, finding that the defendant failed to demonstrate how the challenged testimony was unfairly prejudicial or how its prejudicial effect outweighed its probative value.

In this first-degree murder case, the trial court did not err by admitting letters detailing the defendant’s outstanding debts. The defendant argued that the letters were not relevant. At the time of the victim’s death, she was considering calling off her engagement to the defendant because of his financial problems, and the day before her death she sent him a text message telling him to move out of their home and that, notwithstanding his financial problems, she would continue to seek child support from him. Whether the defendant had a motive to murder the victim was a strongly contested issue in this case. The State alleged that the defendant was facing financial difficulties and that those difficulties created a motive to kill the victim. The letters indicated that the defendant faced financial hardships, both with consumer and child-support debt. This, coupled with evidence that the victim had threatened to remove the defendant from the home and expressed that she would continue to request child-support, made the existence of a financial motive to murder the victim more probable. The letters thus were relevant. The court continued, finding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by finding that the probative value of the letters was not outweighed by danger of unfair prejudice under Rule 403.

State v. Alonzo [Duplicated], ___ N.C. App. __, 819 S.E.2d 584 (Aug. 21, 2018) modified and affirmed on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb 28 2020)

In this child sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by finding that the defendant’s proffered testimony was not relevant. The defendant was charged with committing sexual acts on his daughter Sandy while home from the military on compassionate leave. At trial, the defendant attempted to testify that the reason for his compassionate leave was the rape of his other daughter by a neighbor. The defendant argued that his testimony constituted substantive evidence showing that he did not sexually assault the victim during his compassionate leave and would have allowed him to impeach his ex-wife, Ms. Alonzo, who testified that she witnessed the abuse. Specifically, he asserted that his testimony informing the jury of the sexual assault of his other daughter proves that he “would have been sufficiently deterred” from molesting Sandy during that same time period as “Ms. Alonzo [was] watching him like a hawk.” He further asserted that the testimony would “discredit[] Ms. Alonzo’s testimony” that she saw him sexually assault Sandy, making her explanation for not contacting the police after witnessing his acts “less convincing.” The trial court excluded the testimony under Rules 401 and 403.

     The court made swift work of the defendant’s Rule 401 argument, concluding that his proposed testimony does not have a logical tendency to prove that Defendant would not have sexually molested Sandy. The court went on to conclude that even if the testimony was relevant, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding it under Rule 403. The court explained: “The testimony concerning the sexual assault of another child by an unrelated, third-party had the potential to confuse the jury, outweighing any probative value.”

     The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that his testimony could have been used to impeach Ms. Alonzo. Specifically, he argued that because Ms. Alonzo reported the sexual assault of their other daughter by a neighbor, she therefore would have reported any assault she witnessed him commit. Defendant further alleged that because Ms. Alonzo did not file any reports, the jury could have therefore determined there was no sexual assault. The court rejected this argument, concluding: “Ms. Alonzo turning in a neighbor for sexual assault is entirely different, psychologically and emotionally, than turning in her husband. Without an established correlation between turning in neighbors and husbands for sexual assault, Defendant’s proposed testimony does not ‘have a logical tendency to prove’ that Ms. Alonzo was incorrect or untruthful in her testimony.” Moreover, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding this testimony under Rule 403. The court explained: “As previously stated, testimony concerning the sexual assault of another child by an unrelated, third-party had the potential to confuse the jury, outweighing any probative value.”

In this second-degree murder vehicle accident and felony speeding to elude case, the trial court did not err by excluding, under Rule 401, the defendant’s testimony regarding his medical diagnoses. At trial, the defendant attempted to testify to his cognitive impairments and behavioral problems. The State objected, arguing that the defendant had failed to provide notice of an insanity or diminished capacity defense, and failed to provide an expert witness or medical documentation for any of the conditions. On voir dire, the defendant testified that he suffered from several mental disorders including Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Pediatric Bipolar Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Defense counsel stated the testimony was not offered as a defense but rather so that “the jury would be aware of [the defendant’s] condition and state of mind.” The trial court determined that lay testimony from the defendant regarding his various mental disorders was not relevant under Rule 401. The court found no error, reasoning:

Defendant attempted to offer specific medical diagnoses through his own testimony to lessen his culpability or explain his conduct without any accompanying documentation, foundation, or expert testimony. Defendant’s testimony regarding the relationship between his medical diagnoses and his criminal conduct was not relevant without additional foundation or support. Such evidence would have required a tendered expert witness to put forth testimony that complies with the rules of evidence. Without a proper foundation from an expert witness and accompanying medical documentation, Defendant’s testimony would not make a fact of consequence more or less probable from its admittance.

The court went on to hold that even if error occurred, it was not prejudicial.

In a case involving charges of obtaining property by false pretenses arising out of alleged insurance fraud, the trial court did not err by admitting testimony that the defendant did not appear for two scheduled examinations under oath as required by her insurance policy and failed to respond to the insurance company’s request to reschedule the examination. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that this evidence was not relevant, noting that to prove its case the State had to show that the defendant’s acts were done “knowingly and decidedly … with intent to cheat or defraud.” The evidence in question constituted circumstantial evidence that the defendant’s acts were done with the required state of mind. 

In this murder case, the defendant’s statements about his intent to shoot someone in order to retrieve the keys to his grandmother’s car, made immediately prior to the shooting of the victim, were relevant. The statements showed the defendant’s state of mind near the time of the shooting and were relevant to the State’s theory of premeditation and deliberation, even though both witnesses to the statements testified that they did not believe that the defendant was referring to shooting the victim.

In this homicide case where the defendant was charged with murdering his wife, the trial court properly allowed forensic psychologist Ginger Calloway to testify about a report she prepared in connection with a custody proceeding regarding the couple’s children. The report contained, among other things, Calloway’s observations of defendant’s drug use, possible mental illness, untruthfulness during the evaluation process and her opinion that defendant desired to “obliterate” the victim’s relationship with the children. Because the report was arguably unfavorable to defendant and was found in defendant’s car with handwritten markings throughout the document, the report and Calloway’s testimony were relevant for the State to argue the effect of the report on defendant’s state of mind—that it created some basis for defendant’s ill will, intent, or motive towards the victim. 

In a sexual assault case involving DNA evidence, the trial court did not err by excluding as irrelevant defense evidence that police department evidence room refrigerators were moldy and that evidence was kept in a disorganized and non-sterile environment where none of the material tested in the defendant’s case was stored in those refrigerators during the relevant time period.

In a case in which the defendant was charged with murdering his wife, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting a letter the defendant wrote years before his wife’s death to an acquaintance detailing his financial hardships. Statements in the letter supported the State’s theory that the defendant had a financial motive to kill his wife. 

The trial court did not commit plain error by allowing the State to question two witnesses on rebuttal about whether they received money from the victim in exchange for making up statements when the defendant raised the issue of the victim’s veracity on his cross examination.

In the habitual felon phase of the defendant’s trial, questions and answers contained in the Transcript of Plea form for the predicate felony pertaining to whether, at the time of the plea, the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs and his use of such substances were irrelevant. Although admission of this evidence did not result in prejudice, the court noted that “preferred method for proving a prior conviction includes the introduction of the judgment,” not the transcript of plea.

In a child sexual abuse case, evidence of the defendant’s prior violence towards the victims’ mother, with whom he lived, was relevant to show why the victims were afraid to report the sexual abuse and to refute the defendant’s assertion that the victims’ mother was pressuring the victims to make allegations in order to get the defendant out of the house. Evidence that the victims’ mother had been sexually abused as a child was relevant to explain why she delayed notifying authorities after the victims told her about the abuse and to rebut the defendant’s assertion that the victims were lying because their mother did not immediately report their allegations.

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