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., 10/18/2021
E.g., 10/18/2021

After the defendant’s wife left him due to his drinking and violence, the defendant committed a number of threatening and destructive acts towards her that culminated in the defendant shooting his estranged wife twice in the head outside her work. The victim survived and called 911, and the defendant was arrested in the woods nearby a few hours later. The defendant was indicted for attempted first degree murder, assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, and possession of a firearm by a felon. The defendant was convicted of all charges, sentenced to consecutive terms of 207-261 months and 96-128 months in prison, and raised three arguments on appeal.

First, the defendant argued that the trial court committed plain error by admitting a cell phone video of him kicking a dog, claiming it was irrelevant, prejudicial, and improper character evidence. Since the defendant did not object to the video at trial, the appellate court only considered whether admission of the video rose to the level of plain error. Viewed in context, the video was insignificant when compared to the other overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt, such as witness testimony about his prior threats against the victim, his prior possession and use of a firearm that matched the one used to shoot his wife, his arrest nearby shortly after the shooting, matching ammunition found on his person when he was arrested, and the statements he made during his arrest. Therefore, the court held that it was not plain error to admit the video, since the defendant could not show that he was prejudiced by its admission even if it was error.

Next, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by allowing opinion testimony from the state’s firearms and ballistic expert, contending that it was not based on reliable principles or methods applied to the facts of the case. At trial and again on appeal, the defendant cited to studies and cases from other jurisdictions disputing the reliability of ballistics identification. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision, and held that the evidence was properly admitted under Rule 702 based on the extensive voir dire of the witness which showed that her testimony was based on sufficient facts and data, was the product of reliable principles and methods, and those principles and methods were applied to the facts of the particular case. The appellate court stressed that its role was only to review the trial court’s decision under an abuse of discretion standard, and the record demonstrated that the lower court’s decision on this issue was reasoned and not arbitrary. Moreover, as in the first argument, even if it was error, the defendant could not show prejudice due to the overwhelming evidence of his guilt even without the challenged testimony.

Finally, the defendant argued that it was error to give a jury instruction on flight under the facts of this case, but the appellate court again disagreed. The court acknowledged that mere evidence of leaving the scene is not enough to support the instruction; there must also be some evidence of taking steps to avoid apprehension, but that evidence was present in this case. After shooting his wife, the defendant did not go home but was instead found five hours later near a wooded area. When the defendant and officers saw each other, the defendant entered the woods twice and a K-9 unit had to search for the defendant, eventually finding him curled up in a ball behind a large tree. Viewed in the light most favorable to the state, there was at least some evidence reasonably supporting the theory that the defendant fled.

Judge Zachary concurred with two of the majority’s conclusions, but dissented as to the admission of the forensic firearms expert testimony based on the dispute regarding the error rate and reliability of the analysis.

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder in Person County. The victim was a neighbor with whom the defendant had long-running disputes. According to the defendant, he shot the neighbor in self-defense. The victim was shot 11 or 12 times, with the vast majority of the bullets having entered the victim from the back and side of his body. The State presented evidence from an experiment performed by a forensic firearms examiner attempting to replicate the production of the layout of bullet shell casings found at the scene in order to demonstrate the shooter’s location and to rebut the defendant’s self-defense claim. The expert only reported the results of the experiment and did not specifically opine about the shooter’s location. 

(1) Relying on cases pre-dating the adoption of the Rules of Evidence, the defendant argued this evidence was improperly admitted in violation of the “substantial similarity” test. These older cases imposed stricter requirements for the admission of “experimental evidence” – that is, evidence “about an experiment that is used to prove something about the actual events that occurred in the case.” Slip op. at 8. The defendant argued that these rules controlled, rather than Rule of Evidence 702. Under those cases, the standard of review on appeal of this issue would have been de novo, rather than the abuse of discretion standard applied to Rule 702 challenges. The defendant did not argue or cite to Rule 702 or to any cases applying the rule since the 2011 amendments adopting the Daubert standard for expert testimony. Rejecting this argument, the court found that later cases, even those pre-dating the 2011 amendment to Rule 702, had in fact adopted an abuse of discretion standard of review for experimental evidence. The court also rejected the notion that the substantial similarity test stood apart from Rule 702. “The notion of ‘substantial similarity’ for experimental evidence is one of the many ‘particular factors articulated in previous cases’ that is now baked into the third prong of Rule 702’s reliability test.” Id. at 10. Thus, pursuant to Rule 702, the standard of review is abuse of discretion. Even if the defendant’s argument that the evidence was erroneously admitted was not forfeited by his failure to argue Rule 702 or abuse of discretion, the trial court did not err in admitting the testimony. In the words of the court: “Here, the trial court’s determination that the experiment met the Rule 702 criteria was a reasoned one and not manifestly arbitrary. Thus, we cannot hold that the trial court abused its discretion.” Id. at 12.

(2) The defendant also argued that the trial court erred in qualifying the expert to give an opinion about shell ejection patterns. Voir dire of the expert revealed that he had not received training on ejection patterns of bullet shells, that no certification for this subject exists, and that he had not previously performed this type of experiment. According to the court, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in so qualifying the expert: “’[I]t is not necessary that an expert be experienced with the identical subject matter at issue or be a specialist’ as long as ‘the expert witness because of his expertise is in a better position to have an opinion on the subject than is the trier of fact.’” Id. at 14. Based on his extensive training and experience in the field of firearms, the trial court acted within its discretion and did not err in qualifying the expert.

The conviction was therefore unanimously affirmed with Judges Berger and Arrowood concurring.

In this Pasquotank County case, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder. Upon discovering the body of the victim, police found five shell casings at the scene and two bullets on the victim’s body. At trial, an agent from the State Crime Lab was qualified as an expert in “forensics firearms examinations and analysis” without objection. She opined that the shell casings matched a gun recovered from a field next to the defendant’s property, again without objection. On appeal, the defendant argued that this testimony should have been excluded under Rule of Evidence 702 and relevant case law, and that admission of the testimony was plain error. The court disagreed.

According to the defendant, the analyst’s testimony failed to demonstrate that her opinion was based on sufficient data, that it was the product of reliable methods, or that the methods were reliably applied to the case. Rejecting that argument, the court observed: “Defendant severely misrepresents [the agent’s] opinion testimony by briefly summarizing a few lines of testimony while omitting the bulk of the testimony, and bases his argument on the unsupported and conclusory allegation that the testimony was insufficient to satisfy Daubert.” Reviewing the analyst’s testimony in full, the court found that the expert was qualified by her education in the field, she examined the casings in accordance with her training, she analyzed the data generated from her tests, and described her source of information and conclusions in a peer-reviewed report. Concluding, the court stated:

As [the agent’s] testimony shows her opinion was the product of reliable principles and methods, and that she reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion, much less plainly err, in admitting [the analyst’s] expert opinion testimony on forensic firearms examination.

There was therefore no error in admitting the expert testimony, and conviction was unanimously affirmed.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion by reversing its ruling on the defendant’s motion in limine and allowing the State’s expert witnesses’ firearm identification testimony. The trial court initially had ruled that it would limit any testimony by the experts to statements that the bullets were “consistent,” rather than that they had been fired from the same weapon. However, after defense counsel stated in his opening statement that defense experts would testify as to their “opinion that you cannot make a match, that there [are] simply not enough points of comparison on the two bullets,” the trial court reversed its earlier ruling and permitted the State’s experts to testify to their opinions that both bullets were fired from the same gun. (1) Citing case law, the court held that forensic toolmark identification is sufficiently reliable. (2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State’s experts were not qualified to testify based on a lack of evidence verifying one of the expert’s training and a shared lack of credentials. The State presented evidence of both experts’ qualifications and experience. Although the State did not present verification of one of the expert’s training and neither expert was a member of a professional organization, both experts explained how firearm toolmark identification works and how they conducted their investigations such that they were better qualified than the jury to form an opinion in the instant case.

In a murder case involving a shooting, the trial court did not commit plain error by allowing a Special Agent with the State Bureau of Investigation to testify as an expert in the field of bullet identification, when his testimony was based on sufficiently reliable methods of proof in the area of bullet identification, he was qualified as an expert in that area, and the testimony was relevant. The trial court was not required to make a formal finding as to a witness’ qualification to testify as an expert because such a finding is implicit in the court's admission of the testimony in question.

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