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., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024
State v. Waring, 364 N.C. 443 (Nov. 5, 2010)

In a capital murder case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the State to introduce for illustrative purposes 18 autopsy photographs of the victim. Cynthia Gardner, M.D. testified regarding her autopsy findings, identified the autopsy photos, and said they accurately depicted the body, would help her explain the location of the injuries, and accurately depicted the injuries to which Dr. Gardner had testified. The photos were relevant and probative, not unnecessarily repetitive, not unduly gruesome or inflammatory, and illustrated both Gardner’s testimony and the defendant’s statement to the investigators. 

In this Carteret County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing (1) insufficient evidence, (2) error in admitting numerous gruesome photos of the body, and (3) error in allowing several statements by the prosecutor during closing argument. The Court of Appeals found no prejudicial error. 

At trial, defendant admitted through counsel that he shot the victim, the mother of his son, on August 14, 2018. Evidence showed that earlier that day, the two were seen fighting in the front yard of their residence, and later the victim was seen walking down the road. Defendant eventually picked up the victim and brought her back to their home. Sometime after the victim and defendant were back home, defendant shot and killed the victim, wrapped her in a tarp, then buried her body at a burn pit in his grandfather’s back yard. Defendant also called the victim’s mother, who lived with them, to tell her juice had been spilled on her sheets and he had to launder them. After burying the victim, defendant told others that the victim had left him, and put up flyers trying to find her. Eventually defendant was charged with the murder; while in custody, he had conversations with another inmate about how he “snapped” and shot the victim after she described performing sex acts with other men, and where he hid the body. 

Taking up (1), the Court of Appeals explained that the State argued first-degree murder under two theories, premeditation and deliberation, and lying in wait. The court looked for sufficient evidence to support premeditation and deliberation first, noting that defendant’s actions before and after the murder were relevant. Although defendant and the victim fought before the killing, the court did not find evidence to support the idea that defendant was acting under “violent passion,” and defendant seemed to deliberately choose a small-caliber handgun that was not his usual weapon for the murder. Slip Op. at 10-11. Additionally, the court concluded that “Defendant’s actions following the murder demonstrate a planned strategy to pretend Defendant had nothing to do with the murder and to avoid detection as the perpetrator.” Id. at 12. The court dispensed with defendant’s argument that it should not consider acts after the killing as evidence of premeditation, explaining the case cited by defendant, State v. Steele, 190 N.C. 506 (1925), “holds flight, and flight alone, is not evidence of premeditation and deliberation.” Slip Op. at 14. Because the court found sufficient evidence to support first-degree murder under premeditation and deliberation, it did not examine the lying in wait theory. 

Turning to (2), the court explained that under Rule of Evidence 403, photos of a body and its location when found are competent evidence, but when repetitive, gruesome and gory photos are presented to the jury simply to arouse the passion of the jury, they may have a prejudicial effect, such as in State v. Hennis, 323 N.C. 279 (1988). Here, the court did not find prejudice from the photographs, as “[t]he photographs presented at trial depicted the culmination of the investigation to locate [the victim’s] body and provided evidence of premeditation and deliberation.” Slip Op. at 20. 

The court found error in (3), but not prejudicial error, when examining the prosecutor’s closing argument. First, the prosecutor mentioned the punishment for second-degree murder; the trial court sustained defendant’s objection but did not give a curative instruction. The court found no prejudice as previous instructions directed the jury to disregard questions to sustained objections, and not to acquit or convict based on the severity of punishment. Second, the prosecutor mentioned that defendant did not have to testify; the trial court initially sustained the objection but then overruled it to allow the prosecutor to make an argument about defendant not calling witnesses. The court found that this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt due to “the evidence of Defendant’s motive for planning to kill [the victim], his confession, his use of the .22 caliber handgun, and his acts subsequent to the killing.” Id. at 25. Third, while the prosecutor misstated the applicable precedent regarding provocation, the court explained that a proper instruction by the trial court to the jury on “the required state of mind for premeditation and deliberation” cured the misstatement. Id. at 27. Finally, the court concluded that the prosecutor’s statements referencing defendant’s admission that he killed the victim were “directed at what was and was not at issue for the jurors to decide rather than an improper statement regarding Defendant’s failure to plead guilty.” Id. at 28. 

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, and attempted first-degree murder. The opinion describes in detail the beatings inflicted with a bat by the defendant and two others on the deceased and her fiancé, who was severely injured but survived. The sole issue on appeal was whether the trial judge erred in admitting roughly fifty photographs of the crime scene displaying the victims’ injuries and blood throughout the house. The defendant argued that the trial judge erred in allowing an excessive number of bloody and gruesome photographs that had little probative value and were unfairly prejudicial under Rule 403 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence. The Court of Appeals held that the trial judge did not abuse its discretion in admitting the photographs. The Court stated, “‘Even gory or gruesome photographs are admissible so long as they are used for illustrative purposes and are not introduced solely to arouse the jurors’ passions’” (quoting State v. Hennis, 323 N.C. 279 (1988)). The Court ruled that the trial judge, having conducted an in camera review of the photographs and considered the defendant’s objections, completed its task of reviewing the content and manner in which the photographs were to be used and that the admission of the photographs reflected a thoroughly reasoned decision. The Court further ruled that the defendant was unable to show that the photographs were prejudicial because of other overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.

In this murder case, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting photographs of the victim and crime scene. The trial court allowed the State to introduce approximately 20 photographs depicting various angles and details of the crime scene and the victim’s location and injuries. The photographs corroborated the defendant’s statement to officers that the victim was attacked at her kitchen, suffered a head injury, and was stabbed multiple times. The autopsy photographs illustrated the testimony of the medical examiner, who described the injuries as consistent with multiple particular weapons, the defensive characteristics of some injuries, and the deliberate and persistent nature of the attack.

In an armed robbery case, the trial court did not err by admitting three photographs of the defendant and his tattoos, taken at the jail after his arrest. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the photographs should have been excluded under Rule 403 because they showed him in a jail setting. The court noted that the photographs did not clearly show the defendant in jail garb or in handcuffs; they only showed the defendant in a white t-shirt in a cinderblock room with large windows. Furthermore, the trial court specifically found that it was unable to determine from the pictures that they were taken in a jail.

In this multiple murder case the trial court properly admitted crime scene and autopsy photographs of the victims’ bodies. Forty-two crime scene photos were admitted to illustrate the testimony of the crime scene investigator who processed the scene. The trial court also admitted crime scene diagrams containing seven photographs. Additionally autopsy photos were admitted. The court easily concluded that the photos were relevant. Furthermore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by finding the photographs admissible over the defendant’s Rule 403 objection.

 

The trial court did not commit plain error under Rules 401 or 403 by admitting photographs of the murder victim’s body. The trial court admitted 28 photographs and diagrams of the interior of the home where the victim was found, 12 of which depicted the victim’s body. The trial court also admitted 11 autopsy photographs. An officer used the first set of photos to illustrate the position and condition of the victim’s body and injuries sustained. A forensic pathology expert testified to his observations while performing the autopsy and the photographs illustrated the condition of the body as it was received and during the course of the autopsy. The photographs had probative value and that value, in conjunction with testimony by the officer and the expert was not substantially outweighed by their prejudicial effect.

The trial court did not err in admitting four objected-to photographs of the crime scene where the defendant did not did not object to 23 other crime scene photographs, the four objected-to photographs depicted different perspectives of the scene and focused on different pieces of evidence, the State used the photographs in conjunction with testimony for illustrative purposes only, and the photographs were not used to inflame the jury’s passions. 

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