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
State v. Walston, 367 N.C. 721 (Dec. 19, 2014)

In a child sexual abuse case, although evidence of the defendant’s law abidingness was admissible under Rule 404(a)(1), evidence of his general good character and being respectful towards children was not admissible. On appeal, the defendant’s argument focused on the exclusion of character evidence that he was respectful towards children. The court found that this evidence did not relate to a pertinent character trait, stating: “Being respectful towards children does not bear a special relationship to the charges of child sexual abuse . . . nor is the proposed trait sufficiently tailored to those charges.” It continued:

Such evidence would only be relevant if defendant were accused in some way of being disrespectful towards children or if defendant had demonstrated further in his proffer that a person who is respectful is less likely to be a sexual predator. Defendant provided no evidence that there was a correlation between the two or that the trait of respectfulness has any bearing on a person’s tendency to sexually abuse children.

In this case involving convictions of felony murder, discharging a firearm into an occupied vehicle, and possession of marijuana with intent to sell, the trial court did not err by admitting certain photographs at trial. Two of the photographs (“Gun Photos”) were of firearms; the photos were found on the defendant’s cell phone. A third photograph (“Mustang Photo”) also was recovered from the defendant’s phone; it showed the defendant and another man leaning against the hood of a Silver Mustang with a black racing stripe on the street where the victim was shot. Both men were displaying the hand sign for the number “4” with their left hands, while the man on the right displayed a closed right hand with his middle finger extended.

     The defendant argued that the photos should have been excluded under Evidence Rule 404 because possession of a firearm and flashing gang signs show bad character and bad acts. The court found itself unable to conclude that possession of a firearm is indicative of bad acts or character given that gun ownership is protected by the Second Amendment and that the defendant’s own brief fails to identify any basis for such a conclusion. The court failed to see how the hand signals in the Mustang Photo indicate gang affiliation. Nothing in the record suggests that either gesture indicates gang affiliation, and the trial court instructed the prosecutor not to ask any questions about signs or gang affiliation based on the picture. Thus, neither photograph falls within the scope of Rule 404.

     The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the photographs were inadmissible under Rules 401 and 402. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that no evidence connected the gun at issue to the weapon used in the crime. There was an evidentiary connection between the photos, the crime, and the accused; specifically, the photos were obtained from the defendant’s phone, showed that he had access to firearms and to the vehicle in question, and depict him at almost the precise location where the shooting occurred. One of the gun photos shows the defendant in possession of a firearm resembling the one used in the shooting. The evidence was relevant and the trial court did not err by admitting the photographs.

     The trial court did not abuse its discretion in conducting the Rule 403 balancing test with respect to the photographs. The defendant’s brief assumes that the photographs are irrelevant but because the court concluded to the contrary it rejected this argument as well.

In this drug case, a new trial was required where character evidence was improperly admitted. When cross-examining the defendant’s witness, the prosecutor elicited testimony that the defendant had been incarcerated for a period of time. The court viewed this testimony as being equivalent to testimony regarding evidence of a prior conviction. Because the defendant did not testify at trial, the State could not attack his credibility with evidence of a prior conviction. The court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant opened the door to this testimony, finding that the defendant did not put his good character at issue. 

(1) In a child sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by refusing the defendant’s request to instruct the jury that it could consider evidence concerning his character for honesty and trustworthiness as substantive evidence of his guilt or innocence. At trial, five witnesses testified that the defendant was honest and trustworthy. The defendant requested an instruction in accordance with N.C.P.J.I. 105.60, informing the jury that a person having a particular character trait “may be less likely to commit the alleged crime(s) than one who lacks the character trait” and telling the jury that, if it “believe[d] from the evidence [that the defendant] possessed the character trait” in question, it “may consider this in [its] determination of [Defendant’s] guilt or innocence[.]” The trial court would have been required to deliver the requested instruction if the jury could reasonably find that an honest and trustworthy person was less likely to commit the crimes at issue in this case than a person who lacked those character traits. Although “an individual’s honesty and trustworthiness are certainly relevant to an individual’s credibility, we are unable to say that a person exhibiting those character traits is less likely than others to commit a sexual offense [such as the ones charged in this case].” (2) In a child sexual assault case, in which the defendant was charged with having sexual contact with student athletes who came to him for help with sports injuries, the trial court did not err by refusing to allow a defense witness to testify that the defendant possessed the character trait of working well with children and not having an unnatural lust or desire to have sexual relations with children. The defendant argued that the evidence should have been admitted since it related to a pertinent character trait that had a special relationship to the charged crimes. Citing State v. Wagoner, 131 N.C. App. 285, 293 (1998) (the trial court properly excluded evidence showing the defendant’s “psychological make-up,” including testimony that he was not a high-risk sexual offender, on the theory that such evidence, which amounted to proof of the defendant’s normality, did not tend to show the existence or non-existence of a pertinent character trait), the court concluded that the evidence in question “constituted nothing more than an attestation to Defendant’s normalcy” and was properly excluded.

In this tax evasion case, the trial court erred by excluding the defendant’s character evidence. The facts indicated that the defendant believed advice from others that by completing certain Sovereign Citizen papers, she would be exempt from having to pay taxes. The defendant’s witness was permitted to testify to the opinion that the defendant was a truthful, honest, and law-abiding citizen. However, the trial court excluded the witness’s testimony regarding the defendant’s trusting nature. The court agreed with the defendant that her character trait of being trusting of others was pertinent to whether she willfully attempted to evade paying taxes. The court found the error harmless.

In a murder case where a defense witness testified that the defendant was not a violent person, thereby placing a pertinent character trait at issue, no plain error occurred when the State cross-examined the witness about whether she knew of the defendant’s prior convictions or his pistol whipping of a person.

State v. Bass, 371 N.C. 535 (Oct. 26, 2018)

On appeal from a decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 802 S.E.2d 477 (2017), the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the trial court properly excluded specific instances of the victim’s violent conduct for the purpose of proving that he was the first aggressor. The charges arose from the defendant’s shooting of the victim. The defendant asserted self-defense. In his case in chief, the defendant sought to introduce testimony describing specific instances of violent conduct by the victim, specifically testimony from three witnesses about times when they had experienced or witnessed the victim’s violent behavior. The trial court excluded this evidence but allowed each witness to testify to his or her opinion of the victim’s character for violence and the victim’s reputation in the community. Construing the relevant evidence rules, the Supreme Court determined that character is not an essential element of self-defense. Therefore, with regard to a claim of self-defense, the victim’s character may not be proved by evidence of specific acts. Here, the excluded evidence consisted of specific incidents of violence committed by the victim. Because Rule 405 limits the use of specific instances of past conduct to cases in which character is an essential element of the charge, claim, or defense, the trial court properly excluded testimony regarding these specific prior acts of violence by the victim.

State v. Jacobs, 363 N.C. 815 (Mar. 12, 2010)

In a murder and attempted armed robbery trial, the trial court erred when it excluded the defendant’s proposed testimony that he knew of certain violent acts by the victim and of the victim’s time in prison. This evidence was relevant to the defendant’s claim of self-defense to the murder charge and to his contention that he did not form the requisite intent for attempted armed robbery because “there is a greater disincentive to rob someone who has been to prison or committed violent acts.” The evidence was admissible under Rule 404(b) because it related to the defendant’s state of mind. 

In this murder case, the trial court did not err by excluding the defendant’s proffered evidence about the victim’s gang membership. The defendant asserted that the evidence was relevant to self-defense. However, none of the proffered evidence pertained to anything that the defendant actually knew at the time of the incident.

State v. McGrady, 232 N.C. App. 95 (Jan. 21, 2014) review granted, 367 N.C. 505 (Jun 11 2014)

In murder case involving a claim of self-defense, the trial court did not err by excluding the defense expert testimony, characterized by the defendant as pertaining to the victim’s proclivity toward violence. The court noted that where self-defense is at issue, evidence of a victim’s violent or dangerous character may be admitted under Rule 404(a)(2) when such character was known to the accused or the State’s evidence is entirely circumstantial and the nature of the transaction is in doubt. The court concluded that the witness’s testimony did not constitute evidence of the victim’s character for violence. On voir dire, the witness testified only that that the victim was an angry person who had thoughts of violence; the witness admitted having no information that the victim actually had committed acts of violence. Additionally, the court noted, there was no indication that the defendant knew of the victim’s alleged violent nature and the State’s case was not entirely circumstantial. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s ruling deprived him of a right to present a defense, noting that right is not absolute and defendants do not have a right to present evidence that the trial court, in its discretion, deems inadmissible under the evidence rules. 

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder based on felony murder, attempted first-degree murder, felonious discharge of a firearm into an occupied vehicle in operation, and two counts of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder. The defendant’s brother was the shooter and was convicted in a separate case. (1) On appeal the defendant argued that the trial judge committed plain error by admitting the following evidence. (A) A witness testified that the defendant knew that the defendant’s brother intended to shoot the victims. The Court found that the testimony was inadmissible because a witness may not testify to another person’s mind or purpose without personal knowledge of the person’s mind or purpose, a foundation not laid by the State. The Court concluded, however, that erroneous admission of the testimony did not have a probable impact on the jury’s finding that the defendant counseled and knowingly aided the shooting by assisting in luring the victims to the place where the defendant’s brother shot them. (B) Two witnesses who were not called as experts, one of whom was a detective, testified that the defendant concealed evidence about the planned shooting by using a smartphone texting app. Applying Rule 701 of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence, which requires that opinion testimony by lay witnesses be rationally based on a witness’s perception and helpful to the jury, the Court found that the State failed to lay a foundation showing that the witnesses were familiar with how the use of such apps affects cell phone records. The Court concluded that the erroneous admission of the testimony was not plain error because other evidence showed that the defendant was communicating with her brother via cellphone, that her brother destroyed his cellphone, and there were no records of their communications, which the jury could have viewed in a manner disadvantageous to the defendant. (C) A witness testified to the good character of one of the victims— that he was kind, protective, and nonviolent, among other qualities. The Court held that this testimony was inadmissible under Rule 404(a)(2) because it was not offered to rebut any evidence by the defendant that the victim was the first aggressor in the altercation. The Court concluded that the erroneous admission of the testimony was not plain error given other evidence consistent with the defendant’s guilt. (2) The defendant argued, the State conceded, and the Court found that the trial judge erred in allowing the jury to convict her of two counts of conspiracy because the evidence showed a single conspiracy to shoot two people. The Court therefore vacated one of the conspiracy convictions and remanded for resentencing. One judge concurred in the result only.

The trial judge erred under Rule 404(a)(2) in allowing the state to offer evidence of the victim’s good character. The court concluded that the defense had not offered evidence of the victim’s bad character, even though defense counsel had forecast evidence of the victim’s bad character in an opening statement. 

State v. Lewis, 365 N.C. 488 (Apr. 13, 2012)

The court of appeals properly found that the trial court abused its discretion by excluding, at a retrial, evidence of remarks that the lead investigator, Detective Roberts, made to a juror at the defendant’s first trial. After the defendant’s conviction, he filed a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) alleging that his trial had been tainted because of improper communication between Roberts and a juror, Deputy Hughes. At a hearing on the MAR, the defendant presented evidence that when his case was called for trial Hughes was in the pool of prospective jurors. While in custody awaiting trial, Hughes had twice transported the defendant to Central Prison in Raleigh. On one of those trips, the defendant told Hughes that he had failed a polygraph examination. Also, Hughes had assisted Roberts in preparing a photographic lineup for the investigation. While undergoing voir dire, Hughes acknowledged that he knew the defendant and had discussed the case with him. While he had misgivings about being a juror, Hughes said that he believed he could be impartial. Because the defendant insisted that Hughes remain on the jury, his lawyer did not exercise a peremptory challenge to remove Hughes from the panel. The evidence at the MAR hearing further showed that during a break in the trial proceedings, Roberts made the following statement to Hughes: “if we have . . . a deputy sheriff for a juror, he would do the right thing. You know he flunked a polygraph test, right?” Hughes did not report this communication to the trial court. Although the trial court denied the MAR, the court of appeals reversed, ordering a new trial. Prior to the retrial, the State filed a motion in limine seeking to suppress all evidence raised in the MAR hearing. Defense counsel opposed the motion, arguing that Roberts’ earlier misconduct was directly relevant to his credibility. The trial court allowed the State’s motion. The defendant was again convicted and appealed. The court of appeals held that the trial court abused its discretion by granting the State’s motion. The supreme court affirmed, holding that the trial court should have allowed defense counsel to cross-examine Roberts regarding his statements to Hughes to show Roberts’ bias against the defendant and pursuant to Rule 608(b) to probe Roberts’ character for untruthfulness. The court went on to reject the State’s argument that the evidence was properly excluded under Rule 403, noting that defense counsel understood that the line of questioning would inform the jurors that the defendant had been convicted in a prior trial but believed the risk was worth taking. Finally, the court held that the trial court’s error prejudiced the defense given Roberts’ significant role in the case.

State v. Hembree, 368 N.C. 2 (Apr. 10, 2015)

In this capital murder case in which the State introduced 404(b) evidence regarding a murder of victim Saldana to show common scheme or plan, the trial court erred by allowing Saldana’s sister to testify about Saldana’s good character. Evidence regarding Saldana’s character was irrelevant to the charged crime. For this reason the trial court also abused its discretion by admitting this evidence over the defendant’s Rule 403 objection.

State v. Mylett, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 518 (Dec. 4, 2018) rev’d on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec 11 2018)

In this case involving a conviction for conspiracy to harass a juror, the trial court did not err by allowing the juror-witnesses to testify, over objection, about a fraternity fight that formed the basis for the criminal trial in which the defendant was accused of harassing jurors. The criminal trial involved the defendant’s brother Dan and the charges against Dan arose out of the fraternity fight. The defendant’s charges of intimidating jurors arose out of his conduct with respect to the jurors after they rendered their verdict in Dan’s case. The court rejected the argument that evidence regarding the underlying fight was character evidence and not introduced for a proper purpose under Rule 404(b). The court noted that it would have been nearly impossible to exclude all of the evidence of the fight underlying Dan’s trial as it forms part of the history of the defendant’s interaction with the jurors.

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