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., 09/18/2021
E.g., 09/18/2021
State v. Triplett, 368 N.C. 172 (Aug. 21, 2015)

Reversing the court of appeals in this murder and robbery case, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by prohibiting the defendant from introducing a tape-recorded voice mail message by the defendant’s sister, a witness for the State, to show her bias and attack her credibility. Although the court found that the voice mail message was minimally relevant to show potential bias, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its Rule 403 balancing. Because the sister was not a key witness for the State, any alleged bias on her part “becomes less probative.” The trial court properly weighed the evidence’s weak probative value against the confusion that could result by presenting the evidence, which related to a family feud that was tangential to the offenses being tried.

This Davidson County case involved the sexual abuse of a girl at ages 10 and 13. The defendant was the child’s grandfather. In addition to assaulting the child, the defendant also abused the child’s mother, his daughter. The child’s mother reportedly traded sex with her daughter for drugs from the defendant. The child’s mother cooperated with the investigation. She pled guilty pursuant to Alford to attempted felony child abuse on the condition that she truthfully testify against the defendant at his trial. Defense counsel thoroughly questioned the child’s mother regarding her plea arrangement, but the trial court sustained an objection to questions relating to the Alford aspect of the plea. It ruled that the evidence that the child’s mother took an Alford plea was not relevant and, if it was relevant, that it “did not survive the [Rule 403] balancing test.” Slip op. at 4. The defendant was convicted of all counts at trial and sentenced to a minimum term of 1200 months. The trial court also ordered lifetime sex offender registration and satellite-based monitoring without objection from the defendant. He appealed, challenging the trial court’s decision to exclude evidence of the Alford nature of the plea. He also sought certiorari review of the SBM order, as he failed to preserve his direct appeal of that issue.

(1) The defendant’s objection to the evidentiary ruling was preserved. While the defendant failed to make an offer of proof by conducting voir dire of the witness, the plea transcript with the agreement between the State and the child’s mother was made a part of the record. Trial counsel’s extensive questioning about the plea deal also made the objection obvious from context, thus preserving the issue for appellate review.

(2) The defendant claimed that the Alford plea was relevant to the credibility of the witness and that the trial court erred in sustaining the objection to that line of questioning, causing prejudicial error. The court assumed that the Alford nature of the plea was relevant evidence, but found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s exclusion of the evidence under Rule 403 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence as potentially confusing to the jury:

Under the circumstances of this case, we agree with the trial court that evidence [the] mother entered an Alford plea would serve to confuse the jury regarding the legal details of her plea. In particular, someone would have to explain the meaning of an Alford plea, and [the] mother’s own understanding of the exact meaning of an Alford plea may have been different that the technical legal meaning or the intent Defendant assumes she had. Slip. op. at 14.

(3) The defendant failed to object on any basis to the order imposing SBM at the time of its entry and failed to give written notice of appeal of the order (as required for civil matters such as SBM orders). He sought review via petition for writ of certiorari and asked the court to invoke Rule 2 of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure to reach the merits of his unpreserved argument. The court declined both requests and dismissed the argument, finding the circumstances did not warrant the “extraordinary steps” of both granting certiorari and invoking Rule 2.  

Judge Murphy wrote separately to concur. According to him, the trial court erred in finding the Alford plea evidence irrelevant. The trial court further erred in conducting a Rule 403 balancing test after it found the evidence irrelevant and excluding the evidence on the basis of Rule 403 was an abuse of discretion. However, these errors were not prejudicial under the circumstances of the case.

State v. Alonzo, ___ 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.”

When a trial court properly determines, pursuant to Evidence Rule 403, that the probative value of evidence about a victim’s sexual history is substantially outweighed by its potential for unfair prejudice, the trial court does not err by excluding the evidence, regardless of whether it falls within the scope of the Rape Shield Rule. The defendant was convicted of second-degree sexual offense. On appeal he argued that the trial court erred by denying his ability to cross-examine the victim regarding the victim’s commission of sexual assault when he was a child. Specifically, the victim had told an officer that he had sexually assaulted his half-sister when he was eight or nine years old and thereafter was placed in a facility until he reached 18 years old. The defendant asserted that the victim’s statement about this assault was admissible for impeachment because it was inconsistent with the victim’s previous statements to law enforcement about how and when he was removed from his home as a child. The trial court found that the victim’s statement about sexually assaulting his sister was evidence of prior sexual behavior protected by the Rape Shield Law and also was inadmissible because any probative value is substantially outweighed by the likelihood of unfair prejudice and confusion to the jury. The court declined to address the defendant’s argument that a prior sexual assault committed by a victim is not protected under the Rape Shield law, concluding instead that the trial court properly excluded the evidence under Rule 403. The sexual behavior at issue occurred more than a decade earlier and involved no factual elements similar to the charges in question. The incident is disturbing and highly prejudicial and the circumstances of the victim’s removal from his family home as a child are of remote relevance to the offense charged. Moreover, other evidence, including testimony that the defendant’s DNA matched a swab taken from the victim shortly after the assault, render the victim’s inconsistent statements about facts less relevant to the contested factual issues at trial, namely the defendant’s denial that any sexual encounter occurred. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that exclusion of this evidence impermissibly prevented the jury from hearing evidence that the victim was not a virgin of the time of the offense, contrary to his statement to the defendant that he was a virgin. 

State v. Bishop, 241 N.C. App. 545 (June 16, 2015) rev’d on other grounds, 368 N.C. 869 (Jun 10 2016)

In this cyberbullying case based on electronic messages, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by admitting into evidence the defendant’s Facebook posts that, among other things, stated that “there’s no empirical evidence that your Jesus ever existed.” The comments were relevant to show the defendant’s intent to intimidate or torment the victim, as well as the chain of events causing the victim’s mother to contact the police. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the posts were overly inflammatory.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion under Rule 403 by admitting the defendant’s recorded interview with a police detective. Noting that the fact that evidence is prejudicial to the defendant does not make it unfairly so, the court concluded that the evidence’s probative value was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

In this murder case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the probative value of a recorded telephone call made by the defendant to his father was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. During the call, the defendant’s father asked: “Now who you done shot now?” and “That same gun, right?”

In a first-degree murder trial, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by declining to exclude, under Rule 403, evidence of the defendant’s mid-trial escape attempt. The court reasoned: “[T]he jury may have inferred from the fact that defendant attempted to escape that defendant was guilty of the charges against him. That inference is precisely the inference that makes evidence of flight relevant and it is not an unfair inference to draw.”

State v. Jones, 223 N.C. App. 487 (Nov. 20, 2012) aff’d, 367 N.C. 299 (Mar 7 2014)

In an identity theft case where the defendant was alleged to have used credit card numbers belonging to several victims, the trial court did not abuse its discretion under Rule 403 by admitting evidence that the defendant also was in possession of debit and EBT cards belonging other persons to show intent.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion under Rule 403 by admitting a recording of phone calls between the defendant and other persons that were entirely in Spanish. The defendant argued that because there was one Spanish-speaking juror, the jurors should have been required to consider only the certified English translation of the recording. 

The trial court did not abuse its discretion under Rule 403 by admitting, for purposes of corroboration, a testifying witness’s prior consistent statement. The court noted that although the statement was prejudicial to the defendant’s case, mere prejudice is not the determining factor under Rule 403; rather, the issue is whether unfair prejudice substantially outweighs the probative value. 

The trial court did not abuse its discretion under Rule 403 by admitting the defendant’s statement to an arresting officer that if the officer had come later the defendant “would have been gone and you would have never saw me again.”

In a murder case involving a shooting, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing a detective to give lay opinion testimony concerning the calibers of bullets recovered at the crime scene. Although the testimony was prejudicial, the trial judge correctly ruled that its probative value (helping the jury understand the physical evidence) was not substantially outweighed by the degree of prejudice.

The trial judge did not err under Rule 403 in excluding evidence of the victim’s alleged false accusation that another person had raped her. The circumstances surrounding that accusation were different from those at issue in the trial and the evidence could have caused confusion.

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