Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


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., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024

During cross-examination of the complaining witness in a case involving a charge of assault on a female, the defendant began a line of questions to which the State objected. The trial judge excused the jury and conducted a voir dire, during which the defendant’s counsel demonstrated the proposed cross- examination of the witness, including questions about her mental health and treatment. The trial judge ruled that those questions were not relevant and that to the extent they were relevant they were more prejudicial than probative. When cross-examination resumed in front of the jury, the defendant did not attempt to elicit testimony about the witness’s mental health. (1) The Court of Appeals rejected the State’s argument that the defendant failed to preserve for appellate review the issue of the judge’s refusal to allow the testimony. The defendant was not required to elicit the testimony before the jury where, as here, the defendant elicited the testimony in voir dire and secured a ruling from the trial judge. The Court distinguished State v. Coffey, 326 N.C. 268 (1990), where the trial judge conducted a voir dire, ruled that most of the proposed testimony was inadmissible, but indicated that counsel could ask other questions, which the judge would rule on when the questions were asked. When the jurors returned, however, the defendant did not ask any questions, including questions not yet ruled on by the judge. (2) The Court recognized that North Carolina allows cross-examination of a key witness regarding the witness’s past mental problems or defects to challenge the witness’s credibility, citing State v. Williams, 330 N.C. 711 (1992). The Court found in this case that the excluded testimony concerned prior instances of the witness’s mental health and treatment and that one instance involved treatment the witness had sought for childhood trauma; however, the Court stated that the defendant did not ask or attempt to introduce evidence about a mental health diagnosis or mental state. The Court held that the defendant failed to show that the trial judge abused his discretion in finding that the excluded testimony was not relevant or to the extent it was relevant that it was more prejudicial than probative. (3) The defendant argued that the trial judge committed plain error by charging the jury that the alleged assault involved “grabbing, pushing, dragging, kicking, slapping, and/or punching” when the criminal summons alleged “striking her neck and ear.” The Court rejected the defendant’s variance argument because the defendant failed to object to the instruction at trial, did not request that the trial judge including the “striking” language from the summons, and contributed to the variance by proposing that the judge add the words slapping and punching to the instruction.

State v. Waring, 364 N.C. 443 (Nov. 5, 2010)

(1) In the guilt phase of a capital trial, the trial court did not err by limiting the defendant’s re-cross-examination of law enforcement officers about whether an alleged accomplice cooperated with the police. The defendant failed to establish how the accomplice’s cooperation was relevant to the defendant’s guilt. Furthermore, the State’s questioning did not elicit responses that required explanation or rebuttal or otherwise opened the door for the defendant’s questions. (2) In the sentencing phase of a capital trial, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by overruling the defendant’s objection to the State’s cross-examination of a defense expert seeking to elicit a concession that other experts might disagree with his opinions regarding whether the defendant was malingering. (3) In the sentencing phase of a capital trial, the trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu when the prosecutor asked the defendant’s expert witness whether he was ethically obligated to record the defendant’s test results on a score sheet and about the defendant’s scores in the scale for violence potential.

In this Davidson County case, defendant appealed his convictions for two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, arguing error in (1) denying his motion for new counsel because his appointed attorney was blind, (2) failing to intervene ex mero motu during his cross examination, and (3) failing to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of common-law robbery for defendant’s second count. The Court of Appeals found no error with (1) or (2), but found plain error in (3), vacating the second count of robbery and remanding for a new trial. 

In December of 2016, defendant and an associate entered a gaming business and proceeded to rob the business, the manager on duty, and a patron. Defendant pulled a firearm and pointed it at the manager, demanding money, while his associate, who did not have a firearm, demanded money from the patron. When the matter came for trial in May 2022, defendant requested new appointed counsel because his attorney was blind. The trial court denied the motion and defendant proceeded with his appointed counsel. During the State’s cross-examination of defendant, the prosecutor repeatedly questioned defendant about exchanges he had with the court outside the presence of the jury, including profanity and accusations of racism, while defense counsel did not object to the questioning. At the conclusion of trial, defendant did not request an instruction on the lesser-included offense of common law robbery. 

Considering (1), the Court of Appeals first explained the two-part test for whether to grant new appointed counsel from State v. Thacker, 301 N.C. 348 (1980), and grappled with State v. Jones, 357 N.C. 409 (2003), ultimately determining that it would “purely review the trial court’s denial of Defendant’s motion for new counsel for abuse of discretion.” Slip Op. at 7. Noting that the only issue identified by defendant was that his counsel was blind, the court concluded “[d]efendant’s counsel is licensed to practice law in this state, and we cannot say the trial court abused its discretion by failing to replace him because of an immutable physical condition—a physical condition that is not limited to this case.” Id. at 9. 

Moving to (2), the court noted that it agreed with defendant that “the State’s cross-examination of him was inappropriate,” but that the issues did not rise to plain error. Id. at 10. Because ample evidence supported defendant’s guilt, including video and eyewitness testimony, the court could not conclude that the failure to intervene impacted the jury’s findings of guilt or the fairness of the trial. 

Finally, in (3), the court agreed with defendant, explaining that “a rational jury could have reasonably inferred that neither Defendant nor [his associate] used a dangerous weapon to threaten [the patron].” Id. at 15. Because this meant that a rational jury could have convicted defendant for common-law robbery instead of robbery with a dangerous weapon, the failure to provide an instruction for the lesser included charge was plain error, and this error justified a new trial on the second count of robbery.  

The defendant was convicted of two counts of sexual offense with a child by an adult, rape of a child, first-degree kidnapping, and two counts of taking indecent liberties with a child in Wake County, stemming from the assault of a six-year-old child at a church.

(1) In regard to one of the indecent liberties convictions, the defendant argued that the State did not present sufficient evidence that the defendant acted inappropriately when touching the victim’s chest and that such evidence was only offered for corroborative purposes. The victim’s testimony discussing the touching of her chest was only presented by way of her videotaped forensic interview and was not raised in the victim’s trial testimony. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the videotaped forensic interview of the victim “was properly admitted under Rule 803(4) as her statements were made for the purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment, and the statements were reasonably pertinent to diagnosis or treatment.” Slip op. at 8. Additionally, the trial court instructed the jury to consider the video as substantive evidence. The Court of Appeals therefore determined that “[t]he evidence was sufficient to support denial of the motion to dismiss the challenged charge of taking indecent liberties with a child.” Id.

The defendant also argued that there was insufficient evidence to support a finding that the defendant forcibly removed the victim to facilitate the offense, an essential element of the crime of kidnapping. Specifically, the defendant argues the evidence does not show that he used actual force, fraud, or trickery to remove the victim. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument as well, finding that the defendant’s act of taking the victim to a secluded place to continue the sexual assault was sufficient to support removal for purposes of kidnapping.

(2) Concerning the defendant’s convictions of first-degree kidnapping and sexual offense with a child, the defendant argued “that the trial court erred by instructing on first-degree kidnapping and by failing to instruct on sexual offense with a child by an adult.” Id. at 10. The Court of Appeals found no prejudicial error in the instruction given on first-degree kidnapping because “[t]he evidence at trial was consistent with the allegations in the indictment,” even though the language of the jury instruction varied from the indictment. Id. at 11. The kidnapping indictment stated that “[D]efendant also sexually assaulted [Maya]” while the jury was instructed “that the person was not released by the defendant in a safe place.” Id. at 11-12. The Court of Appeals noted that such variance is usually prejudicial error but determined that the evidence here supported both the theory of the indictment and that of the jury instructions. On plain error review, the court rejected the defendant’s argument and concluded “it is not probable that the jury would have reached a different result if given the correct instruction.” Id. at 12.

The defendant also argued that the trial court erred by entering judgment on sexual offense with a child by an adult after instructing the jury on first-degree sex offense, a lesser offense. The Court of Appeals agreed. Because “[t]he jury instruction clearly outlined the lesser included offense of first-degree sexual offense . . . it was improper for the trial court to enter judgment for two counts of sexual offense with a child.” Id. at 17. The trial court did not instruct on the essential element of age as to the sexual offense with a child by an adult charge. The defendant was therefore impermissibly sentenced beyond the presumptive range for the lesser included offense of conviction. The Court of Appeals determined this was prejudicial error and vacated the defendant’s conviction of sexual offense with a child by an adult, remanding for resentencing on the first-degree sexual offense charge.

(3) The defendant argued that the trial court erred in certain evidentiary rulings. First, the defendant alleged that expert testimony regarding the DNA profile from the victim’s underwear (matching to the defendant) should not have been admitted because there was an insufficient foundation to satisfy the requirements of Rule 702(a)(3) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence. The Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that the witness was “a qualified expert in the field of forensics and an employee at the North Carolina State Crime Lab, [who] testified to her qualifications in the area of DNA analysis as well as her training and experience in gathering evidence for DNA profiles.” Slip op. at 19. Further, the Court explained:

[The witness] thoroughly explained the methods and procedures of performing autosomal testing and analyzed defendant’s DNA sample following those procedures. That particular method of testing has been accepted as valid within the scientific community and is a standard practice within the state crime lab. Thus, her testimony was sufficient to satisfy Rule 702(a)(3). Id. at 21.

The defendant also argued that it was plain error to allow prior bad acts evidence under Rule 404(b) of the North Carolina Rules of Evidence, claiming that the prior incident was unrelated to the current offense. The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court did not err because the facts in both cases were similar enough to be admitted for 404(b) purposes. The trial court’s findings that “both females were strangers to defendant; they were separated from a group and taken to a more secluded location; they were touched improperly beginning with the buttocks; and they were told to be quiet during the assault,” supported the admission of this evidence under Rule 404(b). Id. at 23.

(4) Finally, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by allowing cross-examination of his father and contends the State elicited irrelevant testimony from his father. Specifically, the defendant objected to the admission of questions and testimony about whether the defendant’s father warned members of the church about the defendant’s potential dangerousness. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument and determined “the questions on cross-examination elicited relevant testimony and were well within the scope of defendant’s father’s direct testimony that defendant needed frequent supervision for basic activities.” Id. at 27-28.

Judge Murphy authored a separate opinion concurring in part, concurring in result only in part, and dissenting in part. Concerning the sexual offense jury instruction, Judge Murphy believed “the trial court erred in instructing the jury, however, since the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt Defendant was at least 18 years old in another portion of its verdict and all the charges against Defendant occurred on the same date, there was no plain error.” Slip op. at 5 (Murphy, J., dissenting). Judge Murphy also pointed out that “[h]ad the jury been correctly instructed on the first-degree kidnapping indictment language and found Defendant guilty of first-degree kidnapping based on sexual assault the trial court could not have sentenced Defendant for all the sexual offenses and the first-degree kidnapping offense without violating double jeopardy.” Id. at 13. Following the guidance of State v. Stinson, 127 N.C. App. 252, Judge Murphy believed that the court should have arrested judgment on the first-degree kidnapping conviction and remanded for resentencing on second-degree kidnapping to avoid double jeopardy issues. Lastly, Judge Murphy did not believe the defendant preserved the issue of his father’s testimony for review and would have refused to consider that argument.

In this impaired driving second-degree murder case, the trial court did not err by preventing the defendant from cross-examining witness Cooke regarding the contents of a verified complaint that Cooke had filed against the defendant and the estate of the deceased victim on behalf of himself and Cooke’s son, who was injured in the crash. The State filed a motion in limine to prevent the defendant from cross-examining Cooke regarding the contents of the verified civil complaint. The trial court granted the State’s motion and prohibited the defendant from cross-examining Cooke regarding the allegations in the complaint or about any bias that might result from Cooke’s financial interest in the defendant’s prosecution. Cooke was called by the State to testify about his family and the child’s injuries. The State did not elicit any testimony from him regarding cause of the crash and he did not offer any testimony that would tend to sway the jury in deciding the defendant’s guilt. The defendant failed to show that the trial court’s decision to limit the scope of cross-examination influenced the jury’s verdict.

In a felony assault and robbery case, no plain error occurred when the trial court ruled that the defendant could not question the victim about an unrelated first-degree murder charge pending against him in another county at the time of trial. Normally it is error for a trial court to bar a defendant from cross-examining a State’s witness regarding pending criminal charges, even if those charges are unrelated to those at issue. In such a situation, cross-examination can impeach the witness by showing a possible source of bias in his or her testimony, to wit, that the State may have some undue power over the witness by virtue of its ability to control future decisions related to the pending charges. However, in this case the plain error standard applied. Given that the victim’s “credibility was impeached on several fronts at trial” the court found that no plain error occurred. Moreover the court noted, the victim’s most important evidence—his identification of the defendant as the perpetrator—occurred before the murder allegedly committed by the victim took place. As such, the court reasoned, his identification could not have been influenced by the pending charge. For similar reasons the court rejected the defendant’s claim that counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to object to the State’s motion in limine to bar cross-examination of the victim about the charge.

In a child sexual assault case in which the victim was the defendant’s son, the trial court erred by allowing the State to cross-examine the defendant with questions summarizing the results of a psychological evaluation, not admitted into evidence, that described the defendant as a psychopathic deviant. The evaluation was done by Milton Kraft, apparently in connection with an investigation and custody case relating to the son. Kraft did not testify at trial and his report was not admitted into evidence. The court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant opened the door to the questioning. The noted testimony occurred on redirect and thus could not open the door to cross-examination. Through cross-examination the State placed before the jury expert evidence that was not otherwise admissible.

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