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., 07/19/2024
E.g., 07/19/2024

On discretionary review of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 795 S.E.2d 625 (2017), in this first-degree murder case the court held that the defendant’s statements to officers were voluntary. The defendant voluntarily met with detectives at the police station in connection with a robbery and murder. He was questioned in an interview room for just under five hours before being placed under arrest and warned of his rights as required by Miranda. After being advised of his rights, the defendant signed a written waiver of those rights and made inculpatory statements. He was charged with first-degree felony murder. At trial he sought to suppress his statements to officers, arguing that he was subjected to custodial interrogation before being informed of his rights as required by Miranda, and that his inculpatory statements were made in response to improper statements by detectives inducing a hope that his confession would benefit him. The trial court denied his motion and he was convicted. On appeal the Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant’s inculpatory statements to law enforcement were given under the influence of fear or hope caused by the interrogating officers’ statements and actions and were therefore involuntarily made. The unanimous Court of Appeals panel held that the confession should have been suppressed but concluded the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt due to the overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt. The Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals erred in condensing the Miranda and voluntariness inquiries into one; that the defendant did not preserve the argument that officers employed the “question first, warn later” technique to obtain his confession in violation of Miranda and Seibert; that the trial court’s conclusion that the requirements of Miranda were met is adequately supported by its findings of fact, as is its conclusion that defendant’s statements to officers were voluntarily made. The court thus modified and affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

The defendant was accused of killing his aunt in Lenoir County. Following his arrest, the defendant initially requested an attorney and was not interrogated, but later contacted detectives and signed a Miranda waiver. The defendant offered to make a full statement if he could see his family face-to-face again (visits at the jail were conducted by computer and phone only). Officers initially declined the offer but eventually agreed to a face-to-face family visit, and the defendant confessed. The trial court refused to suppress the statement and the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder at trial. He appealed, arguing that his confession was the product of improper inducement by police and therefore not voluntary.

Due process prohibits the admission of an involuntary confession by a person in custody. “[A] confession obtained by the improper ‘influence of hope or fear implanted in the defendant’s mind’ by law enforcement can render the confession involuntary.” Slip. op. at 5. However, for an inducement to be improper, it “must promise relief from the criminal charge to which the confession relates, not to any merely collateral advantage.” Id. at 6 (citations omitted). Here, the defendant initiated the contact with law enforcement and offered to confess in exchange for the family visit; the plan did not originate with law enforcement. The defendant also testified at suppression that he was motivated in part to confess after talking with his father, who encouraged the defendant to make a truthful statement. The totality of circumstances showed that the confession was knowing and voluntary. Further, the purported inducement here related only to a collateral advantage and did not promise relief from the crime. The denial of the motion to suppress was therefore unanimously affirmed.

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and assault with a deadly weapon with the intent to kill inflicting serious injury. He was sentenced to life without parole for the murder conviction and to shorter terms for the other convictions. The case arose out of the robbery of a bar by two masked individuals, during which the owner of the bar was shot and killed and the perpetrators fled with the cash register. The 18-year-old defendant was arrested and waived his Miranda rights. The defendant adamantly denied his involvement throughout much of the three-hour, recorded interrogation but toward the end confessed his involvement. The defendant’s motion to suppress his confession was denied by the trial judge, and at trial the State introduced his confession and the testimony of others involved in the robbery implicating the defendant. The defendant argued on appeal that his confession was not voluntary because it was induced by hope of a sentence of life imprisonment instilled by the statements and actions of the officers who interrogated him. The Court of Appeals reviewed the transcript of the confession and concluded that in the totality of the circumstances the defendant’s confession was involuntary. The Court found that the defendant was predisposed to deny involvement and believed he would receive a life sentence whether he confessed or not. The Court also found that without being prompted by the defendant, the interrogators introduced the idea that they had ample evidence against the defendant, that they knew he was lying, that the judge could be influenced to show leniency if he confessed, and that they would be willing to testify on his behalf. The Court further found that the State failed to meet its burden to show that admission of the confession, which was constitutional error, was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court observed that there was sufficient evidence to convict the defendant without the confession in light of testimony from others involved in the robbery and video surveillance footage showing the masked perpetrators; however, no physical evidence linked the defendant to the crime and no one at the bar could identify the defendant as one of the perpetrators. The Court stated that it could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that all twelve jurors would have voted to convict without the confession.

(1) In this case involving a gang-related home invasion and murder, the court remanded to the trial court on the issue of whether the defendant’s waiver of his right to counsel was voluntary. Officers interrogated the 15-year-old defendant four times over an eight hour period. Although he initially denied being involved in either a shooting or a killing, he later admitted to being present for the shooting. He denied involvement in the killing, but gave a detailed description of the murders and provided a sketch of the home based on information he claimed to have received from another person. All four interviews were videotaped. At trial, the State sought to admit the videotaped interrogation and the defendant’s sketch of the home into evidence. The defendant moved to suppress on grounds that the evidence was obtained in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. The trial court denied the motion and the defendant was convicted. He appealed arguing that the trial court’s suppression order lacks key findings concerning law enforcement’s communications with him after he invoked his right to counsel. The video recording of the interrogation shows that the defendant initially waived his right to counsel and spoke to officers. But, after lengthy questioning, he re-invoked his right to counsel and the officers ceased their interrogation and left the room. During that initial questioning, law enforcement told the defendant that they were arresting him on drug charges. The officers also told the defendant they suspected he was involved in the killings, but they did not tell him they were charging him with those crimes, apparently leaving him under the impression that he was charged only with drug possession. Before being re-advised of his rights and signing a second waiver form, the defendant engaged in an exchange with the police chief, who was standing outside of the interrogation room. During the exchange, the defendant asked about being able to make a phone call; the police chief responded that would occur later because he was being arrested and needed to be booked for the shooting. The defendant insisted that he had nothing to do with that and had told the police everything he knew. The chief responded: “Son, you f***** up.” Later, when officers re-entered the interrogation room, the defendant told them that he wanted to waive his right to counsel and make a statement. The trial court’s order however did not address the exchange with the chief. Because of this, the court concluded that it could not examine the relevant legal factors applicable to this exchange, such as the intent of the police; whether the practice is designed to elicit an incriminating response from the accused; and any knowledge the police may have had concerning the unusual susceptibility of a defendant to a particular form of persuasion. The court thus remanded for the trial court to address this issue.

(2) The court went on however to reject the defendant’s argument that separate and apart from the chief’s communication with him, his waiver of his right to counsel was involuntary given his age, the officers’ interrogation tactics, and his lack of sleep, food, and medication. The court concluded that the trial court’s order addressed these factors and, based on facts supported by competent evidence in the record, concluded that the defendant’s actions and statements showed awareness and cognitive reasoning during the entire interview and that he was not coerced into making any statements, but rather made his statements voluntarily. Because the trial court’s fact findings on these issues are supported by competent evidence, and those findings in turn support the court’s conclusions, the court rejected this voluntariness challenge.

In a child sexual assault case, the trial court erred by finding that the defendant’s statements were made involuntarily. Although the court found that an officer made improper promises to the defendant, it held, based on the totality of the circumstances, that the statement was voluntarily. Regarding the improper promises, Agent Oaks suggested to the defendant during the interview that she would work with and help the defendant if he confessed and that she “would recommend . . . that [the defendant] get treatment” instead of jail time. She also asserted that Detective Schwab “can ask for, you know, leniency, give you this, do this. He can ask the District Attorney’s Office for certain things. It’s totally up to them [what] they do with that but they’re going to look for recommendations[.]” Oaks told the defendant that if he “admit[s] to what happened here,” Schwab is “going to probably talk to the District Attorney and say, ‘hey, this is my recommendation. Hey, this guy was honest with us. This guy has done everything we’ve asked him to do. What can we do?’ and talk about it.” Because it is clear that the purpose of Oaks’ statements “was to improperly induce in Defendant a belief that he might obtain some kind of relief from criminal charges if he confessed,” they were improper promises. However, viewing the totality of the circumstances (length of the interview, the defendant’s extensive experience with the criminal justice system given his prior service as a law enforcement officer, etc.), the court found his statement to be voluntarily.

State v. Davis, 237 N.C. App. 22 (Oct. 21, 2014)

The trial court did not err by finding that the defendant’s statements were given freely and voluntarily. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that they were coerced by fear and hope. The court held that an officer’s promise that the defendant would “walk out” of the interview regardless of what she said did not render her confession involuntary. Without more, the officer’s statement could not have led the defendant to believe that she would be treated more favorably if she confessed to her involvement in her child’s disappearance and death. Next, the court rejected—as a factual matter—the defendant’s argument that officers lied about information provided to them by a third party. Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that her mental state rendered her confession involuntary and coerced, where the evidence indicated that the defendant understood what was happening, was coherent and did not appear to be impaired.

Rejecting the defendant’s argument that that “[t]he detectives’ lies, deceptions, and implantation of fear and hope established a coercive atmosphere”, the court relied on the trial court’s findings of fact and found that the defendant’s statement was voluntary.

The defendant’s confession was involuntary. The defendant’s first confession was made before Miranda warnings were given. The officer then gave the defendant Miranda warnings and had the defendant repeat his confession. The trial court suppressed the defendant’s pre-Miranda confession but deemed the post-Miranda confession admissible. The court disagreed, concluding that the circumstances and tactics used by the officer to induce the first confession must be imputed to the post-Miranda confession. The court found the first confession involuntary, noting that the defendant was in custody, the officer made misrepresentations and/or deceptive statements, the officer made promises to induce the confession, and the defendant may have had an impaired mental condition.

The trial court did not err by finding the defendant’s statements to his wife voluntary. The defendant’s wife spoke with him five times while he was in prison and while wearing a recording device provided by the police. The wife did not threaten defendant but did make up evidence which she claimed law enforcement had recovered and told him defendant that officers suspected that she was involved in the murder. In response, the defendant provided incriminating statements in which he corrected the wife’s lies regarding the evidence and admitted details of the murder. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his statements was involuntary because of his wife’s deception and her emotional appeals to him based on these deceptions.

The court rejected the juvenile’s argument that his statement was involuntary. The juvenile had argued that because G.S. 20-166(c) required him to provide his name and other information to the nearest officer, his admission to driving the vehicle was involuntary. The court rejected this argument, citing California v. Byers, 402 U.S. 424 (1971) (a hit and run statute requiring the driver of a motor vehicle involved in an accident to stop at the scene and give his name and address did not violate the Fifth Amendment).

The defendant’s confession was voluntary. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he “was cajoled and harassed by the officers into making statements that were not voluntary,” that the detectives “put words in his mouth on occasion,” and “bamboozled [him] into speaking against his interest.” 

In this child sexual abuse case, the defendant’s confession was not involuntary. After briefly speaking to the defendant at his home about the complaint, an officer asked the defendant to come to the police station to answer questions. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his confession was involuntary because he was given a false hope of leniency if he was to confess and that additional charges would stem from continued investigation of other children. The officers’ offers to “help” the defendant “deal with” his “problem” did not constitute a direct promise that the defendant would receive a lesser or no charge should he confess. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the confession was involuntary because one of the officers relied on his friendship with the defendant and their shared racial background, and that another asked questions about whether the defendant went to church or believed in God. Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that his confession was involuntarily obtained through deception.

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his confession was involuntary because it was obtained through police threats. Although the defendant argued that the police threatened to imprison his father unless he confessed, the trial court’s findings of fact were more than sufficient to support its conclusion that the confession was not coerced. The trial court found, in part, that the defendant never was promised or told that his father would benefit from any statements that he made.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress three statements made while he was in the hospital. The defendant had argued that medication he received rendered the statements involuntary. Based on testimony of the detective who did the interview, hospital records, and the recorded statements, the trial court made extensive findings that the defendant was alert and oriented. Those findings supported the trial court's conclusion that the statements were voluntary. 

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that because he was under the influence of cocaine he did not knowingly, intelligently, and understandingly waive his Miranda rights or make a statement to the police. Because the defendant was not under the influence of any impairing substance and answered questions appropriately, the fact that he ingested crack cocaine several hours prior was not sufficient to invalidate the trial court’s finding that his statements were freely and voluntarily made. At 11:40 pm, unarmed agents woke the defendant in his cell and brought him to an interrogation room, where the defendant was not restrained. The defendant was responsive to instructions and was fully advised of his Miranda rights; he nodded affirmatively to each right and at 11:46 pm, signed a Miranda rights form. When asked whether he was under the influence of any alcohol or drugs, the defendant indicated that he was not but that he had used crack cocaine, at around 1:00 or 2:00 pm that day. He responded to questions appropriately. An agent compiled a written summary, which the defendant was given to read and make changes. Both the defendant and the agent signed the document at around 2:41 am. The agents thanked the defendant for cooperating and the defendant indicated that he was glad to “get all of this off [his] chest.” On these facts, the defendant’s statements were free and voluntary; no promises were made to him, and he was not coerced in any way. He was knowledgeable of his circumstances and cognizant of the meaning of his words.

The trial court properly suppressed the defendant’s confession on grounds that it was involuntary. Although the defendant received Miranda warnings, interviewing officers, during a custodial interrogation, suggested that the defendant was involved in an ongoing murder investigation, knowing that to be untrue. The officers promised to testify on the defendant’s behalf and these promises aroused in the defendant a hope of more lenient punishment. The officers also promised that if the defendant confessed, he might be able to pursue his plans to attend community college. 

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