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., 09/21/2021
E.g., 09/21/2021

Defendants Molly Martens Corbett (“Molly”) and Thomas Michael Martens (“Tom”), daughter and father, were convicted of second degree murder in the death of Molly’s husband, Jason Corbett (“Jason”). Evidence at trial established that Tom attempted to stop Jason from choking Molly by hitting Jason with an aluminum baseball bat. Molly also hit Jason with a brick paver. Jason’s skull was fractured from multiple blows and he died at the scene. Jason’s children from a previous marriage, Jack and Sarah Corbett, ages 11 and 8, were at home and sleeping at the time of the altercation. Jack and Sarah’s mother had died unexpectedly when they were very young, and they considered Molly to be their mother.

(1) Defendants argued that the trial court abused its discretion by denying their Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR), as well as their request for an evidentiary hearing, because competent evidence demonstrated that certain jurors “committed gross and pervasive misconduct in their private discussions of the case”; jurors engaged in “private discussions” amongst themselves prior to deliberations; and several jurors’ statements during post-trial media interviews showed that they improperly considered and formed opinions about Molly’s mental health. The court rejected this argument, characterizing the defendants’ allegations as being, at best, general, speculative, and conclusory. Furthermore, the court concluded that even if the trial court were to hold an evidentiary hearing, which it was not required to do, precedent prohibiting verdict impeachment would bar the defendants from presenting any admissible evidence to prove the truth of their allegations.

(2) Defendants asserted that the State failed to present substantial evidence to rebut or contradict Molly’s exculpatory handwritten statement, which the State introduced, establishing that Molly and Tom acted in lawful self-defense and defense of others. The Court of Appeals disagreed.

The State was required to present substantial evidence sufficient to convince a rational trier of fact that the defendants did not act in self-defense. The appellate court determined that the case was not entirely predicated on Molly’s statement that she and Tom acted in self-defense and defense of each other. Rather, the State presented substantial circumstantial evidence from which a rational juror could reach a contrary conclusion, including that: (1) Jason suffered at least twelve blows to the head; (2) Tom had no visible injuries and Molly had only a “light redness” on her neck; (3) Jason was unarmed when the altercation occurred; (4) Jason’s children remained asleep throughout the entire altercation; (5) EMS, paramedics, and law enforcement responders observed that some of the blood on Jason’s body had dried, and that Jason’s body felt cool; (6) Tom told a coworker that he hated Jason; and (7) Jason had a life insurance policy, of which Molly was the named beneficiary.

(3) The Court of Appeals concluded, over a dissent, that certain evidentiary errors were so prejudicial as to inhibit the defendants’ ability to present a full and meaningful defense.

(a) The Court of Appeals held that the trial court erroneously concluded that statements Jack and Sarah Corbett made to workers at a children’s advocacy center were inadmissible under the hearsay exception for medical diagnosis or treatment. At the time of trial, Jack and Sarah had been taken to Ireland to live with their aunt and uncle. The appellate court determined that their statements at the advocacy center satisfied the two-part test for admissibility established in State v. Hinnant, 351 N.C. 277 (2000):  (1) the children made the statements to obtain medical diagnosis or treatment; and (2) the statements were reasonably pertinent to medical diagnosis or treatment. The court explained that the child-friendly atmosphere and the separation of the examination rooms did not indicate that the children’s statements during the interviews were not intended for medical purposes. The children were informed before their interviews that they would be receiving medical interviews together with physical examinations as part of their full evaluations at the facility. The interviewers asked non-leading, open-ended questions, instructed the children that they should not “guess at anything” and emphasized the overall significance of the child medical evaluations that they would be receiving. In addition, the court concluded that the children’s statements were reasonably pertinent to medical treatment or diagnosis. Following their forensic medical interviews, Sarah and Jack were examined by a pediatrician who diagnosed both children as “victim[s] of child abuse based on exposure to domestic violence” and recommended that they “receive mental health services” as treatment.

Moreover, the court concluded that even if the children’s forensic medical interview statements were inadmissible under the medical diagnosis or treatment exception to the rule against hearsay, they (along with statements the children made to DSS workers) were admissible under the residual hearsay exception.

(b) Stuart James, the State’s expert witness in bloodstain pattern analysis, testified at trial about untested blood spatter on the underside hem of Tom’s boxer shorts and the bottom of Molly’s pajama pants. The defendants argued that this testimony was not the product of reliable principles and methods applied reliably to the facts of this case. The Court of Appeals agreed.

While James was “unquestionably qualified to provide expert testimony on the subject” of blood spatter, he did not follow the reliability protocol establish in a treatise he coauthored on the subject. First, these particular stains were not tested for the presence of blood. Second, though James said it was the “best practice” for an analyst to view a photograph of the person wearing the blood-spattered clothes, he never viewed a photograph of Tom “wearing just the boxer shorts.” James further testified that the State provided him with just one photograph of Molly wearing the pajama pants, and that it was not readily apparent from that photograph how the pants actually fit Molly on the night of the incident. The court found James’s failure to follow the reliability standards and protocol prescribed in his own treatise as inherently suspect. It concluded that James’s testimony was based upon insufficient facts and data, and, accordingly, could not have been the product of reliable principles and methods applied reliably to the facts of the case.

The court determined that James's testimony “had the powerful effect of bolstering the State’s claim that Jason was struck after and while he was down and defenseless.” But, given the flawed methodology, the  testimony could only serve to unduly influence the jury to reach a conclusion that it was fully capable of reaching on its own.

(c) The defendants argued that the trial court erred in striking Tom’s testimony that, during the altercation, he “hear[d] Molly scream[,] ‘Don’t hurt my dad.’ ” The Court of Appeals agreed. The court reasoned that Molly’s statement was admissible for the non-hearsay purpose of illustrating Tom’s then-existing state of mind. This was “a particularly relevant issue” in light of the defendants’ claims of self-defense and defense of another.

(d) Tom argued that the trial court committed reversible error by instructing the jury that he would not be entitled to the benefit of self-defense or defense of a family member if the jury found that he were the initial aggressor in the altercation with Jason. The Court of Appeals agreed.

First, the appellate court stated that the trial court could not have based its ruling on Tom’s decision to arm himself with the baseball bat before joining the altercation. The mere fact that a defendant was armed is not evidence that he was the aggressor if he did not unlawfully use his weapon.

Moreover, the court deemed it significant that Jason was the first to employ deadly force. Tom testified that from the moment he opened the bedroom door, “Jason had his hands around Molly’s neck,” and he said he was going to kill her. Jason subsequently put Molly in a “very tight chokehold” and Tom noticed that Molly “was no longer wiggling. She was just weight, being dragged back into the hallway.”

Because Tom did not aggressively and willingly enter into the fight without legal excuse or provocation, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court erred by instructing the jury on the aggressor doctrine. The error, the court reasoned, very likely prejudiced Molly as well as Tom, since the jury was instructed that it could find her guilty under an acting-in-concert theory.

One judge concurred in part and dissented in part. The judge concurred that the trial court did not err by denying defendants’ request for an evidentiary hearing on their MAR and the MAR itself or by denying defendants’ motions to dismiss for insufficient evidence. The judge dissented from the remainder of the majority opinion leading to its conclusion that the defendants are entitled to a new trial.

In this first-degree murder case, the trial did not err by admitting, under Rule 803(3), a handwritten document made by the victim that contained a list of things that the victim was going to tell the defendant. The trial court properly determined that the document showed the victim’s state of mind.

State v. Cook, 246 N.C. App. 266 (Mar. 15, 2016)

In this murder case, the trial court did not err by admitting hearsay testimony under the Rule 803(3) state of mind hearsay exception. The victim’s statement that she “was scared of” the defendant unequivocally demonstrated her state of mind and was highly relevant to show the status of her relationship with the defendant on the night before she was killed. 

The trial court did not err by admitting a murder victim’s hearsay statement to her sister-in-law under the Rule 803(3) then existing mental, emotional or physical condition hearsay exception. The murder victim told her sister-in-law that the defendant was harassing her and had threatened her.

A murder victim’s statements to her mother were properly admitted under the Rule 803(3) exception for then-existing mental, emotional or physical condition. The victim told her mother that she wanted to leave the defendant because he was wanted in another jurisdiction for attempting to harm the mother of his child; the victim also told her mother that she previously had tried to leave the defendant but that he had stalked and physically attacked her. The statements indicate difficulties in the relationship prior to the murder and are admissible to show the victim’s state of mind.

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