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., 12/05/2021
E.g., 12/05/2021

The defendant Molly Corbett was the daughter of the co-defendant, Thomas Marten. The two were charged with second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter following an altercation with Molly’s husband in Davidson County. The altercation occurred at the couple’s home while Molly’s mother and father were visiting overnight. The defendants were jointly tried, and both were convicted of second-degree murder. A divided Court of Appeals granted a new trial based on three evidentiary errors, as well as errors relating to the jury instructions (that decision is summarized here). Based on a partial dissent at the Court of Appeals, the State sought review at the North Carolina Supreme Court. A divided court affirmed.

(1) Following the incident, the children of the deceased husband (from an earlier marriage) made statements to a social worker at a child abuse advocacy and treatment center. They both indicated their father had been abusive towards Molly. One child provided an explanation for the presence of a brick paver (apparently used in the altercation) found in Molly’s room on the night of the incident. The other child explained that her father originally got angry that evening when she awakened her parents following a nightmare. The children were living out of the country at the time of trial and the defendants sought to admit the hearsay statements as statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment and under the residual exception (803(4) and 803(24), respectively). The trial court excluded the testimony.

Rule 803(4) objections are reviewed de novo, while Rule 803(24) objections are reviewed for abuse of discretion. The statements of the children to the social worker were made for purposes of treatment and were reasonably pertinent to their treatment, satisfying Rule 803(4). When determining whether a child had the requisite intent to make a statement for purposes of treatment, North Carolina courts look to the objective circumstances surrounding the statement, including:

(1) whether ‘some adult explained to the child the need for treatment and the importance of truthfulness’; (2) ‘with whom, and under what circumstances, the declarant was speaking’; and (3) ‘the surrounding circumstances, including the setting of the interview and the nature of the questioning’. Corbett Slip op. at 21 (citation omitted).

All of those factors “strongly supported” admission of the children’s statement on the facts of the case.

The statements were also admissible under the residual hearsay exception. The trial court excluded the statements as lacking trustworthiness. No evidence in the record supported this finding, and the evidence otherwise met the requirements for admission under the residual exception. The majority therefore agreed with the Court of Appeals that the children’s statements were improperly excluded and that the defendants’ self-defense claims were undermined as a result. This was prejudicial error requiring a new trial under both rules.

(2) At trial, the State presented expert testimony regarding blood splatter patterns on the defendants’ clothes. On voir dire, the witness acknowledged that the purported blood splatter at issue was not tested for the presence of blood. He further testified that failing to test the material for blood violated the procedures for blood splatter analysis laid out in his own treatise on the subject. The trial court allowed the testimony over objection. A majority of the Court of Appeals determined the evidence was inadmissible under Rule 702, as it was not based on sufficient data and therefore could not have been the product of reliable application of the method to the facts of the case. The dissenting judge at the Court of Appeals only challenged preservation of this claim and did not discuss the merits of the Rule 702 issue in her opinion. The State also did not seek discretionary review of the Rule 702 ruling on the merits. The Supreme Court therefore examined only the preservation argument.

The majority found that the defendants’ preserved the objection by immediately objecting when the evidence was presented (after having also objected during voir dire of the witness), and by renewing the objection the next day. Further, the court determined the issue was preserved by operation of the law. Under G.S. § 15A-1446(d)(10):

[N]otwithstanding a party’s failure to object to the admission of evidence at some point at trial, a party may challenge ‘[s]ubsequent admission of evidence involving a specified line of questioning when there has been an improperly overruled objection to the admission of evidence involving that line of questioning.’ Corbett Slip op. at 44-45 (citing the statute).

While some subsections of G.S. § 15A-1446 have been found to be unconstitutional, the court has never disavowed this one and found that it applied here. Because the Court of Appeals determined this evidence was improperly admitted and that finding was not at issue on appeal to the Supreme Court, the law of the case dictated that the evidence had been improperly admitted. Thus, the defendants’ objections at trial were improperly overruled and the issue was preserved as matter of law, in addition to the grounds relied upon by the Court of Appeals.

(3) Thomas Martens testified in his defense at trial that he heard his daughter yell, “don’t hurt my dad” during the altercation. The trial court sustained the objection as hearsay. The Supreme Court again agreed with the Court of Appeals that this was error. The statement was not hearsay, as it went the Thomas’s subjective belief of fear at the time and was not offered for the truth of the statement. It was alternatively admissible as an excited utterance under N.C. R. Evid. 803(2). In isolation, this error was not prejudicial because the defendant was otherwise given wide latitude to describe his state of mind at the time. It did however contribute to the cumulative prejudice:

[T]hese errors together imposed a significant constraint on defendants’ efforts to establish a crucial fact: namely, their state of mind at the time of the events in question based on all of the circumstances known to them. Corbett Slip op. at 53.

Because the majority agreed with the decision below regarding these evidentiary issues and their prejudicial impact, the court did not reach the other issues addressed by the Court of Appeals.

Justice Berger, joined by Justices Newby and Barringer, dissented. The dissenting justices believed that the majority improperly re-weighed the evidence on appeal and would have found that Rule 803(4) issues were subject to abuse of discretion review, rather than the de novo review applied by the majority. They also faulted the majority for raising G.S. 15A-1446 when no party argued the applicability of that statute.

State v. Phillips, 365 N.C. 103 (June 16, 2011)

Noting that it has not had occasion to consider whether statements by law enforcement officers acting as agents of the government and concerning a matter within the scope of their agency or employment constitute admissions of a party opponent under Rule 801(d) for the purpose of a criminal proceeding, the court declined to address the issue because even if error occurred, it did not constitute plain error.

State v. Chavez [Duplicated], ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 7, 2020) rev’d in part on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, 2021-NCSC-86 (Aug 13 2021)

This Mecklenburg County case involved charges of attempted first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury. The defendant and two other men (one of whom was unidentified) entered the victim’s home and attacked him with a machete and hammer. The victim’s girlfriend escaped with an infant and called police. The defendant and his named co-conspirator apprehended the girlfriend outside of the home, where the defendant instructed the other man to kill her. He refused, and the defendant fled; the other man stayed with the woman until police arrived (and became the named co-conspirator in the indictment). The defendant was convicted of all charges at trial and sentenced to a minimum term of 336 months.

An officer was asked whether she received any conflicting information about the defendant’s identity from witnesses interviewed about the case. The officer testified at trial that she did not. The defendant did not object at trial but complained that admission of evidence was hearsay, violated his confrontation rights, and constituted plain error. Rejecting this argument, the court found that the officer’s testimony did not convey a statement from any of the interviewees and was capable of different interpretations. It was not therefore a statement offered for the truth of the matter asserted and violated neither hearsay rules nor the Confrontation Clause. Even if the admission of this evidence was error, it was not prejudicial and did not rise to plain error. The conviction for conspiracy to commit attempted murder was reversed, the remaining convictions affirmed, and the matter remanded.

The defendant stole fuel injectors from a salvage yard. Among other issues: (1) The defendant’s indictment for larceny of motor vehicle parts in violation of G.S. 14-72.8 was insufficient. The statute requires that “the cost of repairing the motor vehicle is one thousand dollars . . . or more,” but the indictment alleged only that the total value of all the injectors taken from an unspecified number of vehicles was $10,500. The court of appeals construed the statute to require at least $1,000 in damage to a single motor vehicle. (2) A detective testified that he contacted an auto parts company in Maryland and learned that the defendant had sold the company 147 fuel injectors for nearly $10,000. This testimony was not hearsay as it was admitted “to describe [the detective’s] investigation,” not to prove that the defendant stole anything.

State v. Mylett, ___ N.C. App. ___, 822 S.E.2d 518 (Dec. 4, 2018) rev’d on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May 1 2020)

In this case involving a conviction for conspiracy to harass a juror, the trial court did not err by allowing the juror-witnesses to testify, over objection, about a fraternity fight that formed the basis for the criminal trial in which the defendant was accused of harassing jurors. The criminal trial involved the defendant’s brother Dan and the charges against Dan arose out of the fraternity fight. The defendant’s charges of intimidating jurors arose out of his conduct with respect to those jurors after they rendered their verdict in Dan’s case. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the jurors’ testimony regarding the fight constituted hearsay, concluding that it was offered for the legitimate, nonhearsay purpose of proving the jurors’ states of mind.

            At the same time the trial court properly denied the defendant an opportunity to testify about the fight because his testimony constituted inadmissible hearsay. Specifically, his statement describing the fight that “the officer admitted he didn’t try to spit on him” was proffered for the truth of the matter asserted and is inadmissible hearsay.

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court considered inadmissible hearsay in finding him in criminal contempt, reasoning that the evidence was admitted not for the truth of the matter asserted but rather for corroboration. At the show cause hearing the trial court found that the defendant was seen by a testifying State’s witness to have made a hand gesture indicating a gun to his head and shaking his head. This interaction interrupted the State’s direct examination of the witness. At the hearing, the State introduced two transcripts into evidence. The first was a one-page excerpt of the witness’s trial testimony. The second reflected an additional interview with the witness taken after the witness’s trial testimony was completed. Over the defendant’s hearsay objection, the trial court admitted the transcripts. The State further called three witnesses to testify to the events in question, one of whom was the ADA who testified that he saw the defendant make the gesture. The trial court found the defendant to be in willful contempt of court and entered a civil judgment for attorney’s fees and costs. The defendant gave oral notice of appeal. He later filed a petition for a writ of certiorari seeking a belated appeal of the civil judgment. On appeal the defendant argued that he was found in criminal contempt based on inadmissible hearsay. The court rejected this argument, noting that the first transcript was used to illustrate the context in which the incident arose and to corroborate other testimony that the witness seemed agitated and distracted on the stand. The second transcript was used to corroborate the ADA’s testimony. The court concluded: “Because [the transcripts] were used to corroborate the testimony of the State’s witnesses, and were not offered into evidence to prove that Defendant was speaking and making a gun gesture, the trial court did not err when admitting them into evidence.”

(2) The trial court’s findings of fact support its conclusion that the defendant’s conduct was willful. The trial court found, in part, that the defendant’s willful behavior committed during court was intended to interrupt the proceedings and resulted in the witness ceasing testimony and challenging the defendant’s action on the stand in front of the jury. The court held that this finding of fact supported the trial court’s conclusion that the defendant willfully interrupted the proceedings.

(3) The court granted the defendant’s petition for certiorari with respect to review of the civil judgment and held that the trial court erred by entering the civil judgment against the defendant for attorney’s fees without first affording the defendant an opportunity to be heard. Before entering a civil judgment under G.S. 7A-455(b) the defendant must be given notice and an opportunity to be heard. Here, after the defendant was convicted of criminal contempt, the trial court asked defense counsel how much time she spent on the case. After counsel responded that she spent about 9½ hours, the court set a civil judgment in the amount of $570. Because the defendant was present in the courtroom when attorney’s fees were imposed, the defendant received notice. However he was not given an opportunity to be heard. The court vacated the judgment and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

(1) The trial court did not err by admitting the defendant’s brother’s videotaped statement to the police as illustrative evidence. The defendant asserted that the videotaped statement constituted inadmissible hearsay. However the trial court specifically instructed the jury that the videotape was being admitted for the limited, non-hearsay purpose of illustrating the brother’s testimony. Because the videotaped statement was not admitted for substantive purposes the defendant’s argument fails.

(2) The trial court properly allowed into evidence the defendant’s brother’s testimony that “[the defendant] told [him] that he did it” and "[the defendant] told [him] he was the one that did it.” These statements were properly allowed as admissions of a party opponent under Rule 801(d).

The trial court did not err by allowing a witness to testify that after the incident in question and while she was incarcerated, a jailer told her that the defendant was in an adjacent cell. The defendant argued that because the jailer did not testify at trial, this was inadmissible hearsay. The court disagreed, finding that the statement was not offered to prove its truth but rather to explain why the witness was afraid to testify.

State v. Rogers, ___ N.C. App. ___, 796 S.E.2d 91 (Feb. 7, 2017) rev’d in part on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, 817 S.E.2d 150 (Aug 17 2018)

In this drug case, the trial court did not err by allowing an officer to testify about information collected from a non-testifying witness during an investigation. The statement was not offered for its truth but rather to explain the officer’s subsequent conduct and how the investigation of the defendant unfolded.

In this armed robbery case, the statement at issue was not hearsay because it was not offered for the truth of the matter asserted. At trial one issue was whether an air pistol used was a dangerous weapon. The State offered a detective who performed a test fire on the air pistol. He testified that he obtained the manual for the air pistol to understand its safety and operation before conducting the test. He testified that the owner’s manual indicated that the air pistol shot BBs at a velocity of 440 feet per second and had a danger distance of 325 yards. He noted that he used this information to conduct the test fire in a way that would avoid injury to himself. The defendant argued that this recitation from the manual was offered to prove that the gun was a dangerous weapon. The court concluded however that this statement was offered for a proper non-hearsay purpose: to explain the detective’s conduct when performing the test fire.

The defendant’s own statements were admissible under the hearsay rule. The statements were recorded by a police officer while transporting the defendant from Georgia to North Carolina. The court noted that “[a] defendant’s statement that is not purported to be a written confession is admissible under the exception to the hearsay rule for statements by a party-opponent and does not require the defendant’s acknowledgement or adoption.” 

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request to redact certain statements from a transcript of the defendant’s interview with the police. In the statements at issue, an officer said that witnesses saw the defendant pick up a knife and stab the victim. The statements were not hearsay because they were not admitted for the truth of the matter asserted but rather to provide context for the defendants' answers and to explain the detectives' interviewing techniques. The court also noted that the trial court gave an appropriate limiting instruction.

When statements were offered to explain an officer’s subsequent action, they were not offered for the truth of the matter asserted and thus were not hearsay.

An officer’s testimony as to a witness’ response when asked if she knew what had happened to the murder weapon was not hearsay. The statement was not offered for the truth of the matter asserted but rather to explain what actions the officer took next (contacting his supervisor and locating the gun). Although other hearsay evidence was erroneously admitted, no prejudice resulted.

Statements offered to explain a witness’s subsequent actions were not offered for the truth of the matter asserted and not hearsay.

A witness’s written statement, admitted to corroborate his trial testimony, was not hearsay. The statement was generally consistent with the witness’s trial testimony. Any points of difference were slight, only affecting credibility, or were permissible because they added new or additional information that strengthened and added credibility to the witness’s testimony.

(1) In a child sexual assault case, the trial court did not commit plain error by allowing a witness to testify about her step-granddaughter’s statements. The evidence was properly admitted for the non-hearsay purpose of explaining the witness’s subsequent conduct of relaying the information to the victim’s parents so that medical treatment could be obtained. Also, the victim’s statements corroborated her trial testimony. (2) The trial court did not commit plain error by allowing an expert in clinical social work to relate the victim’s statements to her when the statements corroborated the victim’s trial testimony. 

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