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., 12/04/2021
E.g., 12/04/2021

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.

In this capital case, the trial court did not err by allowing the State to elicit testimony that defense counsel had previously hired the State’s expert to testify on behalf of another client. The defendant argued that this allowed the State to improperly vouch for its expert’s credibility. The State’s expert testified that he disagreed with a defense expert’s opinion that the defendant suffers from mild intellectual disability. In light of the differences between the experts’ opinions it was proper to elicit testimony regarding potential witness bias or lack thereof. The court noted:

Although the trial court might have been better advised to have exercised its discretionary authority pursuant to . . . Rule 403, to limit the scope of the prosecutor’s inquiry to whether [the State’s expert] had previously worked for counsel representing criminal defendants in general rather than specifically identifying one of defendant’s trial counsel as an attorney to whom [the expert] had provided expert assistance, we are unable to say, given the record before us in this case, that the challenged testimony constituted impermissible prosecutorial vouching for [the expert]’s credibility or that the trial court erred by refusing to preclude the admission of the challenged testimony.

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

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. 

The defendant was indicted for attempted first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon, and other offenses. The State alleged that the defendant shot a man and his wife, Bruce and Joanne Parker, as they were getting into their car in a darkened Charlotte parking lot. After shooting Mr. Parker, the defendant, who was accompanied by a male and female companion, took Mr. Parker’s wallet and cell phone.

Off-duty officers arrived on the scene shortly after the couple was shot and saw the defendant and his two companions leaving the scene in the defendant’s car. Mr. Parker identified the defendant as the person who shot him. The officers gave chase, and the defendant’s male companion, who was driving, crashed the car. The defendant and his companions ran from the car. The driver was apprehended. The defendant and his female companion ran into a parking garage, where they were captured on surveillance footage, but were not apprehended by officers. On the driver’s seat floorboard of the crashed car, officers found the gun used to shoot the couple, the husband’s cell phone and wallet, and a purse and driver’s license belonging to the defendant’s female companion. Forty-five minutes later, the defendant called law enforcement officers to report that he had been carjacked earlier in the evening.

A few days after the shooting, an officer came to Mr. Parker’s hospital room and showed him a photographic lineup. The defendant’s picture was in the lineup, but Mr. Parker identified another person as the shooter. During trial, Mr. Parker testified that he was able to make out the shooter’s face during the attack. He then, without objection, identified the defendant in the courtroom, stating that the defendant was “pretty much the same man as he was that night,” only that he “appeared a little bit thinner.”

(1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss because there was insufficient evidence both that he was the perpetrator of the offenses and that there was a conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, noting that Mr. Parker identified the car and the defendant as the shooter at the scene; that the officers saw the defendant leaving the scene and the car he was in; that Mr. Parker gave a description of the defendant that same night; that the description matched a person seen on surveillance after the car crashed; that the defendant was the owner of the car; and that Mr. Parker identified the defendant as the shooter in court. The Court also rejected the defendant’s insufficiency of the evidence argument regarding the conspiracy. The Court relied on State v. Lamb, 342 N.C. 151 (1995), and State v. Miles, 267 N.C. App. 78 (2019), in concluding that there was sufficient evidence from which a reasonable juror could conclude that the defendant acted in coordination with the other occupants of the vehicle to rob the Parkers with a dangerous weapon.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court erred by sustaining the State’s objection to the defendant’s question concerning a civil lawsuit filed by the Parkers against the owner of the parking lot alleging inadequate security. The defendant contended that the civil lawsuit was relevant because it showed that the Parkers had an interest in the outcome of the criminal prosecution. The Court has previously held that “where a witness for the prosecution has filed a civil suit for damages against the criminal defendant himself, the pendency of the suit is admissible to impeach the witness by showing the witness’s interest in the outcome of the criminal prosecution.” State v. Dixon, 77 N.C. App. 27, 31– 32 (1985); State v. Grant, 57 N.C. App. 589, 591 (1982). The Court concluded that because the civil suit was not filed against the defendant and because it was not necessary for the Parkers to prove in the civil suit that the defendant was the assailant, the pendency of the civil suit did not show Mr. Parker’s interest in the outcome of the criminal prosecution and was therefore not admissible to impeach the witness.

(3) The defendant’s final argument was that the trial court plainly erred by failing to exclude Mr. Parker’s in-court identification, which the defendant did not object to at trial. The defendant contended that the in-court identification was tainted by Mr. Parker’s exposure to media coverage of the case, his filing of a civil lawsuit that named the defendant as the assailant, the lapse of time, and his identification of someone other than the defendant in the photo lineup. The Court of Appeals concluded that these factors alone did not trigger due process concerns and that the alleged defects of the in-court identification were issues of credibility for the jury to resolve. The Court explained that absent any indication that the in-court identification was tainted by an impermissibly suggestive pre-trial identification procedure, there was no error, let alone plain error, in admitting Mr. Parker’s in-court identification.

In this child sexual assault case, the trial court erred by excluding evidence which tended to show the victim’s mother’s bias against the defendant. After concluding that the defendant failed to preserve his challenges with respect to three pieces of impeachment evidence, the court concluded that exclusion of impeachment evidence that the mother had previously accused the defendant of domestic abuse constituted error. The evidence at issue showed that the mother had accused the defendant of domestic violence, that the police declined to prosecute, that she subsequently took out a private warrant, and that she failed to prosecute those charges. The court agreed that exclusion of this evidence was error, explaining: “Evidence that Mother had accused Defendant of domestic violence could have indicated Mother’s bias against Defendant and may have influenced the jury’s assessment of her credibility as a witness.” However, considering the entire record, the court went on to conclude that there was no reasonable possibility that had the jury heard the evidence a different result would have been reached at trial.

In this child sexual assault case, even if the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s request to admit into evidence three letters to the editor written by the State’s expert witness and published in a newspaper 10 years before the expert’s interview with the child in question, the error was not prejudicial. The defendant contended that the letter showed possible bias or prejudice in child advocacy matters and that he should have been permitted to cross-examine the expert about their content. The court determined however that the defendant had failed to demonstrate a reasonable possibility that a different result at trial would have occurred if the letters have been admitted.

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.

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