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. 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. 

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