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., 12/05/2022
E.g., 12/05/2022

In a case where the defendant was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, the court reversed the opinion below, ___ N.C. App. ___, 789 S.E.2d 703 (2016), for the reasons stated in the dissent. The case involved the drowning of a child under the defendant’s supervision in 2013. A majority of the Court of Appeals panel determined that evidence of a prior incident involving the drowning of a child under the defendant’s supervision in 2010 was properly admitted under Rule 404(b). The majority went on to conclude, however, that the State used the 404(b) evidence “far beyond the bounds allowed by the trial court's order” based on extensive references to the evidence, and that this constituted reversible error. The dissenting judge agreed that the 404(b) evidence was properly admitted but disagreed that the State’s use of that evidence warranted reversal. According to the dissent, the defendant’s argument regarding the State’s use of the 404(b) evidence should be treated as a challenge to jury argument in the absence of an objection, a claim assessed under the gross impropriety standard, which the defendant could not meet.

In this possession of a firearm by a felon case, the court reversed in part the decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 801 S.E.2d 169 (2017), for the reasons stated in the dissent. A divided panel of the court of appeals had held that the trial court erred by admitting 404(b) evidence. The current charges were filed after officers found an AK-47 rifle in the back seat of a vehicle and a Highpoint .380 pistol underneath the vehicle, next to the rear tire on the passenger side. At trial, the State offered, and the trial court admitted, evidence of a prior incident in which officers found a Glock 22 pistol in a different vehicle occupied by the defendant. The evidence was admitted to show the defendant’s knowledge and opportunity to commit the crime charged. The defendant offered evidence tending to show that he had no knowledge of the rifle or pistol recovered from the vehicle. The court of appeals held that the trial court erred by admitting the evidence as circumstantial proof of the defendant’s knowledge. It reasoned, in part, that “[a]bsent an immediate character inference, the fact that defendant, one year prior, was found to be in possession of a different firearm, in a different car, at a different location, during a different type of investigation, does not tend to establish that he was aware of the rifle and pistol in this case.” The court of appeals found that the relevance of this evidence was based on an improper character inference. It further held that the trial court abused its discretion by admitting the evidence as circumstantial proof of the defendant’s opportunity to commit the crime charged. The court of appeals noted, in part, that the State offered no explanation at trial or on appeal of the connection between the prior incident, opportunity, and possession. The court of appeals went on to hold that the trial court’s error in admitting the evidence for no proper purpose was prejudicial and warranted a new trial. The dissenting judge believed that because the defendant did not properly preserve his objection, the issue should be reviewed under the plain error standard, and that no plain error occurred. 

In this first-degree murder case, (1) the trial court did not err by admitting under Rule 404(b) evidence of the disappearance of a person the defendant had been previously convicted of murdering, (2) the defendant was not prejudiced by alleged improper remarks by the prosecution during closing argument, and (3) the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the murder charge for insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation.

(1) At the defendant’s murder trial for killing victim Tucker, the state introduced evidence concerning law enforcement investigation into the disappearance of victim Rippy, a woman the defendant had been previously convicted of murdering but whose body had never been found.  Tucker’s body was discovered during a search of property associated with the defendant by investigators who were looking for Rippy.  The trial court admitted evidence concerning the investigation of Rippy’s disappearance under Rule 404(b) to show the course of the investigation of Tucker’s death, identity, motive, and modus operandi.  On appeal, the defendant argued under the standard of plain error that the evidence concerning Rippy was not sufficiently similar and was so voluminous as to be more prejudicial than probative under Rule 403.  The court first explained various ways in which the challenged evidence of Rippy’s disappearance was introduced for a proper purpose under Rule 404(b), including that it helped provide a full picture of the course of the investigation of Tucker’s death, related to the credibility of witnesses, and cast certain physical evidence in a probative light.  The evidence concerning Rippy also was sufficiently similar to that concerning Tucker as both victims lived around Wilmington; were of the same sex; disappeared within nine months of each other; had legal, financial, and substance abuse problems; relied on the defendant for transportation; had relationships with the defendant; and were subjects of his sexual attention.  Distinguishing State v. Hembree, 368 N.C. 2 (2015), the court further found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence under Rule 403, pointing to the trial court’s deliberate weighing of its probative and prejudicial qualities and appropriate limiting instructions to the jury.

(2) The defendant made several arguments pertaining to alleged trial court errors during the prosecution’s closing arguments. (a) Certain statements about the presence of Tucker’s blood in the defendant’s car were a reasonable inference from evidence introduced at trial, though no DNA samples were recoverable from sections of carpeting that had been shown through testing to contain human blood. (b) Statements that Rippy was deceased did not violate the trial court’s limitation on the state’s use of the defendant’s conviction for her murder and were not made for an improper purpose. (c) The trial court cured improper statements suggesting that defendant bore the burden of proving his own innocence and was responsible for the inclusion of second-degree murder as a lesser-included offense on the verdict sheet, and did not err by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial based upon those statements. (d) The trial court did not err by failing to intervene ex mero motu when the prosecution referred to “evil” during closing while displaying a poster that showed the Black defendant alongside the white victims. (e) The alleged improper remarks did not amount to cumulative prejudice.

(3) Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, there was substantial evidence of premeditation and deliberation to support the conviction of first-degree murder.  The nature of Tucker’s injuries from blunt force trauma suggested that the manner of her killing was brutal and thus indicative of premeditation and deliberation.  Premeditation and deliberation also was suggested by evidence of postmortem concealment and undignified treatment of Tucker’s body, as well as the defendant’s efforts to destroy evidence of the murder.

In this possession of a firearm by a felon case, the trial court did not err when it allowed an officer to testify that during an unrelated incident, the officer saw the defendant exiting a house that the officer was surveilling and to testify that the defendant had a reputation for causing problems in the area. This testimony was offered for a proper purpose: to establish the officer’s familiarity with the defendant’s appearance so that he could identify him as the person depicted in surveillance footage. Additionally, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the probative value of this testimony outweighed its prejudicial impact under the Rule 403 balancing test. However, the court went on to hold that the officer’s testimony that the surveillance operation in question was in response to “a drug complaint” did not add to the reliability of the officer’s ability to identify the defendant. But because no objection was made to this testimony at trial plain error review applied, and any error that occurred with respect to this testimony did not meet that high threshold.

In this arson case, the trial court properly admitted 404(b) evidence to show the defendant’s intent. The evidence in question pertained to another arson which was sufficiently similar to the incident in question. Both arsons occurred in the same town during nighttime hours and involved the same building location. In both instances the defendant was intoxicated, knew the buildings were occupied, and was angry about a perceived harm perpetrated against her by an occupant of the residence. Although the other incident occurred approximately four years earlier, there was a sufficient temporal proximity to the conduct at issue.

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