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., 06/14/2024
E.g., 06/14/2024
State v. McNeill, 371 N.C. 198 (June 8, 2018)

In this capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that information he provided his lawyers regarding the location of the victim’s body was inadmissible by virtue of the attorney-client privilege. Here, the trial court correctly determined that the information was not protected by the privilege. Specifically, testimony of defense counsel at a hearing before the trial court plainly established that the defendant communicated the information to counsel with the purpose that it be relayed to law enforcement to assist in the search for the victim. Because the communication was made for the purpose of being conveyed by counsel to others, it was not privileged.

In this Gaston County first-degree murder case, the trial court (1) did not err in instructing the jury that there was sufficient evidence to infer that the defendant intentionally injured the victim; (2) erred by allowing the State to examine the defendant about privileged communications he had with defense counsel; (3) and did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to compel the State to disclose the theory on which it sought to convict him of first-degree murder.

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court’s instruction to the jury that “[w]hen an adult has exclusive custody of a child for a period of time during which that child suffers injuries that are neither self-inflicted nor accidental, there is sufficient evidence to create an inference that the adult intentionally inflicted those injuries” impermissibly “created a ‘mandatory presumption’” that the defendant intentionally injured the victim. Viewing the challenged language “in light of the entire charge” and in the greater context of the law regarding intent and direct and circumstantial evidence, the Court of Appeals found no error in the instruction, explaining in part that the phrase “sufficient to create an inference” cannot reasonably be interpreted as meaning that the basic facts, if proven, “necessarily create an inference” of intent.

(2) The trial court erred by permitting the State to question the defendant on cross-examination about the substance of communications between him and defense counsel as those communications were subject to attorney-client privilege. Over an objection and in an effort to impeach the defendant’s credibility, the State was permitted to question the defendant about whether he discussed his law enforcement interrogation with his attorney. The Court of Appeals determined that the error was not prejudicial in light of the fact that the defendant’s credibility was already at issue at the time of the objectionable cross-examination and the defendant already had testified to being untruthful with police in the past.

(3) Given the well-stablished principle that “when first-degree murder is charged, the State is not required to elect between theories of prosecution prior to trial,” the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his pretrial motion to compel the State to disclose the theory upon which it sought his conviction.

Conversation between the defendant and his lawyer was not privileged because the defendant told his lawyer the information with the intention that it be conveyed to the prosecutor. At a hearing on the defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea, the defendant’s former attorney, who had represented the defendant during plea negotiations, testified over the defendant’s objection. Former counsel testified about a meeting in which the defendant provided former counsel with information to be relayed to the prosecutor to show what testimony the defendant could offer against his co-defendants.

In this murder case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the clergy-communicant privilege prohibited admission of evidence regarding the defendant’s confession to his pastor. The court noted that there are two requirements for this privilege to apply: the defendant must be seeking the counsel and advice of his or her minister; and the information must be entrusted to the minister as a confidential communication. Here, the evidence in question was not the defendant’s confession to the pastor; it was evidence that the defendant told a third-party who was not a member of the clergy that he had confessed to the pastor about the murder. Because no recognized privilege existed between the defendant and that third-party, the defendant’s statement to the third-party that he had confessed to a preacher was not privileged. The court continued, concluding that even if error had occurred the defendant failed to show prejudice.

State v. Rollins, 363 N.C. 232 (May. 1, 2009)

Marital communications privilege does not protect conversations between a husband and wife that occur in the public visiting areas of state correctional facilities. No reasonable expectation of privacy exists in those places.

On the first day of the defendant’s jury trial, the defendant’s wife, Leah, testified that one day she and defendant got into an argument, and the defendant stabbed her multiple times in her back, arms, leg, stomach, face, and neck. Leah further testified that the defendant stopped stabbing her after he cut himself, and he requested to have sex. Leah told the defendant that she would have sex with him if he put the knife down. 

At some point, Leah gained control of the knife, and testified that the defendant told her “it’s over for him now and he knows the police is coming and he just wanted me to let the knife go so he could kill hisself[.]” Slip op. at ¶ 3. The defendant took Leah’s phone into another room, and Leah ran out of the house and drove to a nearby store for help. During the first day of trial, when this testimony was presented, the defendant did not object to Leah’s testimony about the defendant’s statements.

On the second day of the defendant’s trial, Leah informed the trial court she did not want to testify against her husband. Defense counsel argued Leah was attempting to assert marital privilege and moved to strike her testimony from the previous day. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to strike and compelled Leah to testify because she was under subpoena.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred when it allowed privileged marital communications into evidence, specifically (1) requests to have sex; (2) confessions of suicidal thoughts; and (3) admissions by the defendant of guilt to crimes against his wife. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument, holding that the portions of testimony challenged by the defendant were not confidential communications. The Court cited G.S. 8-57(b)(2), which specifically provides that a spouse of a defendant “shall be both competent and compellable to testify” in a prosecution for assaulting or communicating a threat to the other spouse. Slip op. at ¶ 12. Because the defendant was on trial for attempted murder of a spouse and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury upon a spouse, there was no marital privilege available.

Additionally, the Court determined that the defendant’s statements to his wife while he was attacking her with a knife and while she was attempting to escape were not prompted by the affection, confidence, and loyalty of marital relations and were thus not confidential communications.

The trial court did not err by applying G.S. 8-57.1 (husband-wife privilege waived in child abuse) in this child abuse case. The defendant asserted that the trial court erred by admitting privileged evidence about consensual sexual activity between the defendant and his wife. Specifically, he argued that the trial court erroneously concluded that the marital communications privilege was waived by G.S. 8-57.1. The defendant argued that the statute does not completely abrogate the privilege and is limited to judicial proceedings related to a report pursuant to the Child Abuse Reporting Law. The court disagreed, holding that the privilege was waived under the statute.

In this rape case, because the evidence was clear and positive and not conflicting with respect to penetration, the trial court did not err by failing to instruct on attempted rape. Here, among other things, a sexual assault nurse testified that the victim told her she was penetrated, the victim told the examining doctor at the hospital immediately after the attack that the defendant had penetrated her, the defendant’s semen was recovered from inside the victim’s vagina.

The marital privilege did not apply when the parties did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy of their conversation, which occurred after they were arrested and in an interview room at the sheriff’s department. Warning signs indicated that the premises were under audio and visual surveillance and there were cameras and recording devices throughout the department.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by admitting his medical records into evidence. The court began by rejecting the defendant’s argument that under the plain language of the physician-patient privilege statute, G.S. 8-53, disclosure of a patient’s medical records may be compelled only by judicial order after determination that such disclosure is necessary to a proper administration of justice. No authority suggests that this statute provides the exclusive means of obtaining patient medical records. G.S. 90-21.20B allows law enforcement to obtain such records through a search warrant and permits disclosure of protected health information notwithstanding G.S. 8-53. Next the court rejected the defendant’s argument that G.S. 90-21.20B did not permit the disclosure to law enforcement and use at trial of the medical records.

Because the social worker-patient privilege belongs to the patient alone, a social worker did not have standing to appeal an order compelling her comply with a subpoena where the patient never asserted the privilege. In this civil action the court found that the record and the patient’s failure to participate in the appeal showed that the patient had raised no objection to the social worker’s testimony or document production.

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