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., 11/27/2021
E.g., 11/27/2021

On appeal from a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 818 S.E.2d 718 (2018), the Supreme Court held that the trial court violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. In this murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and possession of a firearm by a felon case, the trial judge erred by limiting the defendant’s ability to question the State’s principal witness about whether she expected to receive a favorable plea offer for drug trafficking charges pending in Guilford County in exchange for her testimony against the defendant in Forsyth County. In a voir dire hearing, the defendant showed that prosecutors in the two counties had been in touch by email and discussed a possible plea deal for the witness in Guilford based on her testimony at the defendant’s trial. By limiting the witness’s testimony about this possible deal, the trial court prohibited the jury from considering evidence that could have shown bias on the witness’s part, and thus violated the defendant’s confrontation rights. The court distinguished previous cases in which it had deemed similar errors harmless, reasoning that this involved a limit on the testimony of the State’s principal witness. Moreover there was no physical evidence linking the defendant to the crime and no other witness placing him at the scene. As a result, the court concluded that the trial judge’s error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and affirmed the Court of Appeals’ decision to vacate the verdict and order a new trial.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Newby, dissented, writing that the trial judge allowed ample cross-examination of the witness about her pending charges in Guilford County, and that the limitations the court imposed were an appropriate exercise of its discretion to control the scope and extent of cross-examination to prevent confusion and eliminate undue repetition.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his confrontation clause rights were violated when the trial court released an out-of-state witness from subpoena. The State subpoenaed the witness from New York to testify at the trial. The witness testified at trial and the defendant had an opportunity to cross-examine him. After the witness stepped down from the witness stand, the State informed the trial court judge that the defense had attempted to serve a subpoena on the witness the day before. The State argued that the subpoena was invalid. The witness refused to speak with the defense outside of court and the trial court required the defense to decide whether to call the individual as a witness before 2:00 p.m. that day. When the appointed time arrived, the defense indicated it had not yet decided whether it would be calling the individual as a witness and the trial court judge released the witness from the summons. The defendant’s confrontation rights were not violated where the witness was available at trial and the defendant had the opportunity to cross-examine him. Additionally, under G.S. 15A-814, the defendant’s subpoena was invalid. 

The trial court did not violate the defendant’s confrontation rights by barring him from cross-examining two of the State's witnesses, Moore and Jarrell, about criminal charges pending against them in counties in different prosecutorial districts than the district in which defendant was tried. The court noted that the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation generally protects a defendant’s right to cross-examine a State's witness about pending charges in the same prosecutorial district as the trial to show bias in favor of the State, since the jury may understand that pending charges may be used by the State as a weapon to control the witness. However, the trial judge has wide latitude to impose reasonable limits on such cross-examination based on, for example, concern that such interrogation is only marginally relevant. Here, the defendant failed to provide any evidence of discussions between the district attorney's office in the trial county and district attorneys' offices in the other counties where the two had pending charges. Additionally, Jarrell testified on cross-examination and Moore testified on voir dire that each did not believe testifying in this case could help them in any way with proceedings in other counties. On these facts, the court concluded that testimony regarding the witnesses' pending charges in other counties was, at best, marginally relevant. Moreover, the court noted, both Jarrell and Moore were thoroughly impeached on a number of other bases separate from their pending charges in other counties.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his constitutional right to confront witnesses against him was violated when the trial court refused to permit defense counsel to cross examine the defendant’s accomplices about conversations they had with their attorneys regarding charge concessions the State would make to them if they testified against the defendant. The court held that the accomplices’ private conversations with their attorneys were protected by the attorney-client privilege and that the privilege was not waived when the accomplices took the stand to testify against the defendant.

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