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., 09/22/2021
E.g., 09/22/2021
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.

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