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., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021
State v. Williams, 363 N.C. 689 (Dec. 11, 2009)

An officer’s testimony that a substance found on a vehicle looked like residue from a car wash explained the officer’s observations about spots on the vehicle and was not a lay opinion. The officer properly testified to a lay opinion that (1) the victims were not shot in the vehicle, when that opinion was rationally based on the officer’s observations regarding a lack of pooling blood in or around the vehicle, a lack of shell casings in or around the car, very little blood spatter in the vehicle, and no holes or projectiles found inside or outside the vehicle; (2) one of the victim was “winched in” the vehicle using rope found in the vehicle, when that opinion was based upon his perception of blood patterns, the location of the vehicle, and the positioning of and tension on the rope on the seat and the victim’s hands; and (3) the victims were dragged through the grass at the defendant’s residence, when that opinion was based on his observations at the defendant’s residence and his experience in luminol testing.

In this Wilson County case, the defendant was convicted after a jury trial of first-degree murder related to a dispute arising out of a card game. Though the defendant told the victim he was going to kill him, and though multiple witnesses saw the defendant shoot the victim, the defendant claimed for the first time at trial that another man, William Saxton, actually shot the victim. During the trial, a witness testified over the defendant’s objection that the defendant had driven to Mr. Saxton’s house after the card game because he knew Mr. Saxton had guns. Another witness testified over the defendant’s objection that he thought the defendant had tried to have him killed. (1) The defendant argued on appeal that both witnesses gave impermissible lay-witness opinions and that the trial court erred by admitting them. The Court of Appeals agreed. A lay witness may not speculate about another person’s intentions on a particular occasion, and each of the witnesses here did (that the defendant drove to Mr. Sexton’s house to get a gun, and that the defendant had set up another witness to be killed, respectively). In both instances, the court concluded, the witness was in no better position than the jurors to deduce the defendant’s intentions based on the evidence. Nevertheless, the court concluded that neither witness’s testimony prejudiced the defendant in light of the ample evidence against him.

(2) The defendant also argued on appeal that his right to not incriminate himself was violated when the trial court allowed the State to elicit testimony from a detective that the defendant did not give the same explanation of events at trial (that another man shot the victim) at any time before trial. The defendant argued that asking the officer why the defendant did not mention the other man earlier impermissibly referenced his post-arrest silence. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the right to remain silent did not apply when the defendant did not actually remain silent; instead, he spoke to the detective, claimed that he did not kill the victim, and that he did not know who did. The State’s questioning focused on the differences between the defendant’s statement during the investigation (that he did not know who killed the victim) and his explanation at trial (that Mr. Saxton killed the victim) and was therefore permissible.

The defendant was convicted after a jury trial of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and other serious felony charges after he shot and killed his former girlfriend and then pistol-whipped and fired a gun at another woman, a registered nurse. The defendant argued that the trial court erred by allowing lay testimony on the defendant’s mental capacity from his second victim, a registered nurse. She answered questions from the State on how the defendant compared to “psych patients” she had dealt with, on whether the defendant was able to process his thoughts, and on whether he was in touch with reality. Though a lay witness may not offer a specific psychiatric diagnosis, the Court of Appeals—reviewing the issue for abuse of discretion—concluded in light of the evidence against the defendant that there was no reasonable possibility that the result of his trial would have been different if the trial court had excluded the testimony.

In this child sexual assault case, the trial court did not commit plain error by allowing the defendant’s wife to testify regarding “red flags” that she should have seen earlier regarding the defendant’s conduct with the victim. In context, the witness was not offering an opinion as to the defendant’s guilt but rather responding to a question whether she had ever observed unusual behavior to between the defendant and the victim.

In this murder and possession of a firearm by a felon case, the trial court did not commit plain error by allowing the admission of an investigator’s testimony concerning the defendant’s demeanor. At trial, the investigator, who had interviewed the defendant, was asked to clarify why he thought that the defendant’s earlier statement didn’t “add up.” The investigator noted the defendant’s demeanor testifying, among other things, that the defendant did not express emotion when talking about his wife’s alleged suicide. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the statements constituted impermissible lay opinions under Rule 701. Rather, it concluded that in context, the investigator was simply explaining the steps he took in his ongoing investigation; his statements expressing skepticism over the defendant’s account served merely to provide context explaining his rationale for subjecting the defendant to further scrutiny. The court further rejected the defendant’s argument that the investigator’s testimony regarding certain text messages sent from the victim’s phone also constituted improper lay opinion testimony. The investigator examined these messages to determine whether the victim’s death was a suicide. Like the investigator’s other testimony, this testimony provided context for his decision-making regarding the investigation; his testimony explained why he conducted a homicide investigation rather than concluding that the victim’s death was a suicide. Regarding the investigator’s testimony that the defendant “was deceptive,” the court concluded that because the statements were elicited by the defense on cross examination the invited error doctrine applied.

State v. Bishop, 241 N.C. App. 545 (June 16, 2015) rev’d on other grounds, 368 N.C. 869 (Jun 10 2016)

In this cyberbullying case based on electronic messages, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing the investigating detective to testify that while investigating the case, he took screen shots of anything that appeared to be evidence of cyberbullying. The defendant argued that the detective’s testimony was inadmissible opinion testimony regarding the defendant’s guilt. The detective testified about what he found on Facebook and about the course of his investigation. When asked how he searched for electronic comments concerning the victim, he explained that examined the suspects’ online pages and “[w]henever I found anything that appeared to have been to me cyber-bullying I took a screen shot of it.” He added that “[i]f it appeared evidentiary, I took a screen shot of it.” This testimony was not proffered as an opinion of the defendant’s guilt; it was rationally based on the detective’s perception and was helpful in presenting to the jury a clear understanding of his investigative process and thus admissible under Rule 701. 

In this felony child abuse case, the trial court did not commit plain error by admitting testimony from an investigating detective that the existence of the victim’s hairs in a hole in the wall of the home where the incident occurred was inconsistent with defendant’s account of the incident, that he punched the wall when he had difficulty communicating with a 911 operator. The detective’s testimony did not invade the province of the jury by commenting on the truthfulness of defendant’s statements and subsequent testimony. Rather, the court reasoned, the detective was explaining the investigative process that led officers to return to the home and collect the hair sample (later determined to match the victim). Contrary to defendant’s arguments, testimony that the hair embedded in the wall was inconsistent with defendant’s version of the incident was not an impermissible statement that defendant was not telling the truth. The detective’s testimony served to provide the jury a clear understanding of why the officers returned to the home after their initial investigation and how officers came to discover the hair and request forensic testing of that evidence. It concluded: “these statements were rationally based on [the officer’s] experience as a detective and were helpful to the jury in understanding the investigative process in this case.”

An officer properly gave lay witness testimony. In a case where data from the defendant’s electronic monitoring device was used to place him at the crime scene, the officer-witness testified regarding the operation of the device and tracking data retrieved from the secured server. When questioned about specific tracking points in the sequence of mapped points, he identified the date, time, accuracy reading, and relative location of the tracking points.

In a murder case, the trial court did not err by excluding testimony of Susan Strain, a licensed social worker. Strain worked with the defendant’s step-father for several years and testified that she occasionally saw the defendant in the lobby of the facility where she worked. The State objected to Strain’s proffered testimony that on one occasion the defendant “appeared noticeably depressed with flat affect.” The trial court allowed Strain to testify to her observation of the defendant, but did not permit her to make a diagnosis of depression based upon her brief observations of the defendant some time ago. The defendant tendered Strain as a lay witness and made no attempt to qualify her as an expert; her opinion thus was limited to the defendant’s emotional state and she could not testify concerning a specific psychiatric diagnosis. The statement that the defendant “appeared noticeably depressed with flat affect” is more comparable to a specific psychiatric diagnosis than to a lay opinion of an emotional state. Furthermore Strain lacked personal knowledge because she only saw the defendant on occasion in the lobby, her observations occurred seven years before to the murder, she did not spend any appreciable amount of time with him, and the defendant did not present any evidence to indicate Strain had personal knowledge of his mental state at that time.

In an assault with a deadly weapon on a law enforcement officer case, the trial court did not err by allowing the officer to give lay opinion regarding the weight of a kitchen chair (the alleged deadly weapon) that the defendant threw at him. The officer’s observation of the chair and of the defendant use of it was sufficient to support his opinion as to its weight. Also, this testimony was helpful to the jury.

No plain error occurred when the trial court allowed a detective to give lay opinion testimony that items were purchased with a stolen credit card and it looked like someone had tried to hide them; subtotals on a store receipt indicated that the credit card was stolen; blood was present on clothing and in a car; and a broken wood panel piece matched a break at the entry site. Some testimony was proper on grounds that an officer may give lay opinion testimony based on investigative training. Other testimony was nothing more than an instantaneous conclusion reached by the detective. Finally, the Supreme Court of North Carolina has upheld lay opinion testimony identifying blood or bloodstains. 

Although Rule 704 allows admission of lay opinion evidence on ultimate issues, the lay opinion offered was inadmissible under Rule 701 because it was not helpful to the jury. In this case, a detective was asked: After you received this information from the hospital, what were your next steps? Were you building a case at this point? He answered: “I felt like I was building a solid case. [The defendant] was, indeed, the offender in this case.” However, the error did not constitute plain error.

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