Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium


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., 06/13/2024
E.g., 06/13/2024

In this first-degree murder case, the defendant challenged (1) the validity of a search warrant for his home; (2) the trial court’s refusal to suppress electronic monitoring data from a GPS unit the defendant was wearing at the time of the offense; (3) the trial court’s refusal to allow him to cross examine a witness on a particular issue; (4) the admission of expert testimony concerning firearms identification and examination: (5) the trial court’s denial of his motion to dismiss the murder charge.  The Court of Appeals rejected each of the defendant’s arguments and upheld his conviction.

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that a search warrant for his home address was defective because of an insufficient nexus between the murder, the evidence sought, and the defendant’s address.  The court noted, among other things, that the search warrant affidavit explained that officers looking through a window had seen bullets on a shelf inside a building at the defendant’s address, that firearms were found in the defendant’s truck when he was arrested, and that there were blood smears on the defendant’s truck and his hands when he was arrested.  The allegations in the warrant affidavit were sufficient for a magistrate to reasonably infer that the items sought under the warrant, such as weapons, ammunition, bloodstains, and DNA evidence, likely could be found at the defendant’s residence.  The court also determined that the trial court’s findings of fact related to the defendant’s motion to suppress supported the trial court’s conclusion that there was probable cause to support the issuance of the warrant.

(2) The Court of Appeals determined that no plain error occurred in connection with the trial court refusing to suppress electronic monitoring data from a GPS device the defendant was wearing at the time of the offense because was on post-release supervision.  Among other things, the court noted that the defendant moved to suppress the data under G.S. 15A-974(a)(2) as a substantial violation of Chapter 15A while alleging that the evidence was obtained in violation of G.S. 15-207.  The court explained that G.S. 15A-974(a)(2) “does not provide a mechanism by which [the defendant] could allege evidence was obtained as a result of a substantial violation of Chapter 15.” 

(3) The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that he should have been allowed to cross-examine a witness a witness concerning a Facebook message that the victim sent his mother on the day of the murder suggesting that the victim, who was killed in his home, planned to go somewhere else to fight an unknown person.  The trial court properly excluded the testimony on hearsay grounds, and, given that the message did not point directly towards the guilt of another party, the Court of Appeals concluded that it was “too remote and speculative to be relevant.”

(4) The court next rejected the defendant’s challenge to expert firearm identification evidence, which it examined for plain error because of the defendant’s failure to object to the admission of the testimony at trial.  Conducting a detailed Rule 702 analysis and recounting significant portions of the expert’s testimony, which generally opined that casings and bullets collected from the crime scene were fired from a pistol seized from the defendant, the court determined that the testimony was based on sufficient facts or data and was the product of reliable principles and methods which the expert applied reliably to the facts of the case, as required under Rule 702.

(5) Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss the first-degree murder charge on the basis of insufficient evidence of malice, premeditation, and deliberation or that the defendant was the perpetrator.  The court found that the defendant had both the opportunity and the capability to commit the murder, as evidenced by GPS data placing him at the crime scene and witness testimony that on the day in question the defendant brandished a firearm matching the murder weapon.  Evidence tending to show that the defendant fired three shots into the victim’s head, two of which were from close range, was sufficient on the issues of malice and premeditation and deliberation.

In this Polk County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree murder and possession of a stolen vehicle, arguing error in six areas of evidentiary rulings by the trial court. The Court of Appeals found no error.  

In March of 2016, defendant, along with his girlfriend and another man, drove a stolen car from Greenville, SC, to Polk County. Defendant first tried to rob a gas station, but was held back by his girlfriend. Afterwards, defendant pulled up next to a stopped truck and asked the driver for directions. After the exchange became heated, defendant shot and killed the driver. Defendant fled the scene, but was eventually arrested in Tallahassee, FL, and came to trial. 

The Court of Appeals took up each of defendant’s six issues in turn. First, defendant argued that admitting testimony related to a robbery in Gainesville, FL, after the murder was prejudicial; presuming arguendo that admitting the evidence was error, the court held that overwhelming evidence still supported defendant’s conviction. In the second issue, defendant argued that admitting lay opinion testimony from his girlfriend identifying a gun used in the murder was error, and again the court found that even if it was error, it was not prejudicial due to the overwhelming evidence. In the third issue, defendant argued that admitting ten videos and five photographs of him stealing the vehicle in South Carolina was improper under Rule of Evidence 403; the court again disagreed, noting that the evidence was probative to the elements of possessing a stolen vehicle and not unduly prejudicial. Taking up the fourth issue, the court rejected defendant’s argument that the murder and possession of a stolen vehicle charges lacked a transactional connection and should have been severed. The court noted that defendant possessed the stolen vehicle when he shot the victim, and used the same gun in both crimes. 

In the fifth issue, defendant challenged the State’s expert testimony regarding the shell casing found at the scene under Rule of Evidence 702. The court noted “[t]he State’s expert not only explained the standards she had followed, but also explained how she had applied these standards within the context of the cartridges in the present case.” Slip Op. at 14. Defendant also argued that the testimony was “inherently subjective,” but the court rejected this as a reason to exclude the testimony, noting that defense counsel was able to extensively cross examine the expert and the ultimate determination of weight and credibility was for the jury. Id. at 15. Finally, the court considered defendant’s argument that the trial court’s decisions represented cumulative error, explaining that the decisions were “not demonstrated to be abuses of discretion nor prejudicial,” and thus did not deprive defendant of a fair trial. Id. at 16. 

Judge Stroud concurred in the result only. 

In this New Hanover County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing error in (1) denying his motion to dismiss for lack of evidence he was the perpetrator; (2) overruling his objection that the trial court did not make necessary findings on reliability for expert testimony; (3) denying his post-conviction motion for appropriate relief (MAR) based upon newly-discovered evidence; (4) admitting evidence of his prior removal of an electronic monitoring device; and (5) overruling his objections to the State’s closing argument. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In January of 2016, officers responded to a call about a fourteen-year-old being shot. While accompanying the ambulance to the hospital, they received a report of additional shots fired, and diverted to the scene, where the officers found defendant running from the area. After arresting defendant, officers found he was carrying a 9mm handgun. The State Crime Laboratory later matched the bullet that killed the victim to this handgun. Defendant was subsequently convicted and appealed. 

Taking up defendant’s argument (1), the Court of Appeals explained that because the evidence that defendant was the perpetrator was circumstantial, proof of motive, opportunity, and means were necessary to support the inference that defendant committed the crime. Here, the State admitted evidence that the shooting was in retaliation for a previous shooting two weeks prior, and that the shell casing found at the scene, the bullet in the victim, and defendant’s statements to police all tied him to the murder. As a result, “[a] reasonable juror could find Defendant had the opportunity and means to commit the murder.” Slip Op. at 8. 

Turning to (2), the court noted that trial courts enjoy wide latitude when determining admissibility of expert testimony. Here, defendant argued that the State’s firearm expert did not utilize “reliable principles and methods” in violation of Rule of Evidence 702, as the State’s expert utilized a micro-analysis test instead of a lands and grooves test on the projectile, a method disputed by the defense’s expert. Id. at 10. The court found no abuse of discretion as “[t]he superior court made supported findings to resolve purported contradictions between the competing experts.”

Reviewing (3), the court explained defendant’s newly discovered evidence concerned the history of the State’s expert receiving a complaint from a superior court judge as well as a mistake during a firearm examination in a previous case. The court noted that the State was not in possession of the expert’s personnel records and was not aware of the purported mistake, and under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), the State had not suppressed material evidence. The court further noted that defendant was not entitled to a new trial as the newly discovered evidence “merely questions the expert witness’ past, not the State’s evidence at this trial.” Id. at 14. 

Arriving at (4), the court explained that the trial court’s decision to admit evidence of defendant removing his electronic monitoring device fifteen days before the shooting under Rule of Evidence 404(b) was not error. Defendant “disabled his electronic monitoring device approximately an hour after another murder was committed two weeks earlier in the same area of Wilmington . . . [t]he evidence and timing of these incidents and Defendant’s actions are part of the chain of events that contextualize the crime.” Id. at 16. 

Finally, the court dispensed with (5), explaining that the prosecutor’s closing argument did not shift the burden onto defendant, as the statements merely referenced defendant’s failure to refute the evidence admitted at trial. Likewise, the prosecutor’s reference to a link between the murder and retaliation for a previous murder was not an improper reference to “gangs” and was supported by evidence and testimony admitted at the trial. 

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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