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., 02/28/2024
E.g., 02/28/2024

In this Durham County case, the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals majority decision upholding defendant’s voluntary manslaughter conviction. 

In December of 2016, defendant was driving out of his neighborhood when he was followed by the victim. Defendant was familiar with the victim and felt that the victim was violent and posed a threat to his safety. After the victim cut defendant off and blocked his way forward, defendant backed up, but found himself stuck in a ditch. As the victim approached his car, defendant pulled out a gun and fired at the victim. Defendant hit the victim in the back of the head as he ran from the gunfire, killing him. At trial, defendant argued he was acting in self-defense, despite the fact that no gun was found on the victim. Defense counsel attempted to question the victim’s father about the contents of the victim’s phone, including photos of the victim and friends holding guns. The trial court did not permit this questioning, despite defense counsel’s argument that the State had opened the door to examining this issue after testimony regarding the victim’s happy, friendly nature. On appeal, the Court of Appeals majority found that the trial court properly applied the Rule of Evidence 403 balancing test and excluded the evidence, and that even if this was error, it was not prejudicial. The dissent would have found that the line of questioning opened the door to allowing the phone evidence and that defendant was entitled to a new trial.

The Supreme Court explained the issue on appeal as “whether, if the door was opened, defendant had the right to ask [the victim’s father] specific questions about the cell phone’s contents in front of the jury.” Slip Op. at 11. The Court explained that the concept of opening the door predated the modern rules of evidence, and that frequently the concept was no longer needed due to the structure of the modern rules. Despite the State’s opening the door on “otherwise irrelevant or inadmissible evidence,” the trial court retained the power to act as gatekeeper under Rule 403. Id. at 14. This gatekeeping function is reviewed for abuse of discretion on appeal, a standard that is “a steep uphill climb” for an appealing party. Id. at 15. Here, the trial court struck a balance that the Supreme Court found not an abuse of discretion. 

The Court went beyond the abuse of discretion analysis to determine that, even if the trial court committed abuse of discretion, defendant was not prejudiced by the decision and was not entitled to a new trial. Explaining defendant’s conviction, the Court noted that the jury found defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, meaning that they found he was acting in self-defense but that he used excessive force when doing so. The Court explained that there was no reasonable way the evidence would have convinced the jury that defendant was acting appropriately, as defendant had never seen or heard about the contents of the victim’s phone prior to the shooting. Id. at 18. Likewise, the evidence would not have supported the jury finding that the victim had a gun or shot at defendant, and could not have rebutted the evidence showing the victim was fleeing from defendant when he was shot in the back. After making this determination, the Court concluded “[t]here is no reasonable possibility that a ruling in defendant’s favor [on the phone evidence] would have led to a different jury verdict.” Id. at 20. 

In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed his convictions for felony cocaine possession and misdemeanor marijuana and drug paraphernalia possession, arguing error in the denial of his motion to suppress testimony obtained in violation of his Miranda rights and limitation of his cross-examination of an officer testifying against him. The Court of Appeals dismissed defendant’s appeal. 

In October of 2017, a vehicle with defendant as a passenger was pulled over for expired tags; when officers approached the vehicle, they smelled marijuana. Officers observed a book bag in the back seat of the vehicle, and asked the occupants who owned the bag. Defendant answered that the book bag was his, and a subsequent search of the bag turned up a digital scale and a lockbox containing a handgun and cocaine. Defendant denied that the lockbox was his. At trial, the officer testified, over defendant’s objection, regarding defendant’s statement that the book bag was his. On cross-examination, defense counsel attempted to elicit testimony regarding defendant’s statement that the lock box inside the book bag was not his, but the prosecutor objected on hearsay grounds. The trial court sustained this objection, which led to defendant’s decision to take the stand and testify that the lock box was not his and he did not have a key to it. 

Looking at defendant’s objections, the Court of Appeals noted that the statements defendant objected to, (1) his ownership of the book bag, and (2) his lack of ownership for the lock box, were both admitted several times. Defendant himself testified that he owned the book bag and did not own the lock box when he took the stand. Quoting State v. Terry, 337 N.C. 615 (1994), the court noted “[w]here evidence is admitted over objection, and the same evidence has been previously admitted or is later admitted without objection, the benefit of the objection is lost.” Slip Op. at 6. Ultimately, “all of the statements central to Defendant’s arguments on appeal were admitted into evidence several times, either without objection by Defendant, during Defendant’s cross-examination of the State’s witnesses, or during Defendant’s own testimony.” Id. at 8. The court rejected defendant’s argument that he was compelled to testify, noting that the trial court’s ruling on the hearsay objection left him with a choice of trial strategy, not an obligation to testify. As a result of defendant’s actions, he rendered the alleged errors harmless, leading the court to dismiss his appeal. 

In this embezzlement case, the trial court did not commit plain error by allowing a detective to testify regarding the defendant’s post-arrest silence. The defendant opened the door to the testimony by pursuing a line of inquiry on cross-examination centering around the detective’s attempts to contact the defendant before and after her arrest.

State v. Crump, ___ N.C. App. ___, 815 S.E.2d 415 (Apr. 17, 2018) rev’d on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Dec 18 2020)

In a case involving charges of assault on a law enforcement officer, the trial court did not err by allowing the State to present evidence that an internal police department investigation of the involved officers resulted in no disciplinary actions or demotions. The defendant asserted that this evidence constituted inadmissible hearsay. During a pretrial hearing on the defendant’s motion in limine to exclude this evidence, the defendant noted his intent to open the door during cross-examination and question the officers about their knowledge of the inner workings of such investigations and whether they had conferred with an attorney prior to making their official statements. The trial court noted that this proposed line of questioning would open the door to the State’s introduction of the results of the investigation. However, the defendant maintained his intent to proceed with his line of questioning, and the trial court denied the motion in limine. When the defendant cross-examined the officers about these matters at trial, he opened the door to the evidence at issue.

Because the defendant’s self-serving, exculpatory statement was separate and apart from inculpatory statements he made on other days and that were admitted at trial, the State did not open the door for its admission. 

In a case where the defendant was charged with assaulting a court security officer, no error occurred when the State was allowed to cross-examine the defendant about another criminal proceeding in which he was the prosecuting witness and that he referenced in his direct examination. On direct, the defendant explained that he was at the courthouse on the day in question to find out why the prior case had been dismissed. The court concluded that by testifying about the earlier case on direct, he opened the door to cross-examination. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence detailing dismissal of the charge constituted a “judicial opinion” on his credibility, reasoning: “a charge may be dismissed for a variety of reasons; for example, a witness’s unimpeached and credible testimony may simply not establish the elements of a criminal offense.”

In a murder case, the trial court did not err by admitting testimony concerning nine-millimeter ammunition and a gun found at the defendant’s house. Evidence concerning the ammunition was relevant because it tended to link the defendant to the scene of the crime, where eleven shell casings of the same brand and caliber were found, thus allowing the jury to infer that the defendant was the perpetrator. The trial court had ruled that evidence of the gun—which was not the murder weapon—was inadmissible and the State complied with this ruling on direct. However, in order to dispel any suggestion that the defendant possessed the nine-millimeter gun used in the shooting, the defendant elicited testimony that a nine-millimeter gun found in his house, in which the nine-millimeter ammunition was found, was not the murder weapon. The court held that the defendant could not challenge the admission of testimony that he first elicited.

(1) In this child sexual abuse case, the trial court did not err by allowing an emergency room doctor who examined one of the children to testify to the child’s credibility where the defendant elicited this evidence during his own cross-examination. (2) The trial court did not err by allowing into evidence the defendant’s statement that he was investigated in Michigan for similar sexual misconduct decades prior to the current incident. On direct examination the defendant stated that he had “never been in trouble before” and that he had no interaction with the police in connection with a criminal case. These statements opened the door for the State to inquire as to the Michigan investigation.  

In this child sexual abuse case, the trial court did not err by allowing the State to ask a DSS social worker about a 2009 DSS petition alleging that the victim was neglected, sexually abused and dependent where the defendant opened the door to this testimony. Before the witness testified, the defendant had cross-examined two child witnesses about their testimony at the 2009 DSS hearing, pointing out inconsistencies. This cross-examination opened the door for the State to ask the DSS social worker about the 2009 hearing. 

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.

The court rejected the State’s argument that the defendant opened the door to admission of otherwise inadmissible hearsay evidence (a 911 call). Reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Any error in connection with the admission of statements elicited from a witness on cross-examination was invited. The defendant, having invited error, waived all right to appellate review, including plain error review.

Although some portion of a videotape of the defendant’s interrogation was inadmissible, the defendant opened the door to the evidence by, among other things, referencing the content of the interview in his own testimony.

The defendant could not complain of the victim’s hearsay statements related by an expert witness in the area of child mental health when the defendant elicited these statements on cross-examination.

The defendant opened the door to the State’s cross-examination of a defense expert regarding prior offenses. On direct examination, the defendant’s psychiatric expert reviewed the defendant’s history of mental illness, including mention of his time in prison in 1996 for robbery. Defense counsel presented evidence as to defendant’s time in prison, the year of the crime, the type of crime, defendant’s time on probation, and a probation violation which returned him to prison. On cross-examination, the State questioned the expert about the defendant’s time in prison, the defendant’s previous “pleas which ultimately sent [defendant] to prison[,]” and the exact dates and times of the incidents, one of which led to the defendant’s incarceration. The defendant raised no objection until the State presented police reports from the defendant’s prior robbery conviction. Because the expert had testified about the robbery, the State could inquire into his knowledge of the events which led to the conviction.

Because the State did not offer a portion of a co-defendant’s inadmissible hearsay statement into evidence, it did not open the door to admission of the statement. The only evidence in the State’s case pertaining to the statement was an officer’s testimony recounting the defendant’s response after being informed that the co-defendant had made a statement to the police.

In a sexual exploitation of a minor and indecent liberties case, the defendant opened the door to admission of hearsay statements by the child victim and her babysitter.

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