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., 02/25/2024
E.g., 02/25/2024

In this Henderson County case, defendant appealed his conviction for trafficking opium or heroin by possession, arguing error in the denial of his requested instruction that the jury must find he knew what he possessed was fentanyl. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In March of 2018 the Henderson County Sheriff’s Office executed a warrant for defendant’s arrest at a home in Fletcher. During the arrest, an officer smelled marijuana and heard a toilet running in the house, leading the police to obtain a search warrant for the entire home. During this search, officers found a plastic bag with white powder inside, as well as some white powder caked around the rim of a toilet. Officers performed a field test on the substance which came back positive for cocaine, but when lab tested, the substance turned out to be fentanyl. At trial, one of the officers testified that “everyone” at the scene believed the substance they found was cocaine on the day of the search. Defendant chose not to testify during the trial, and had previously refused to give a statement when arrested. 

Turning to defendant’s arguments, the court found that no evidence in the record supported defendant’s contention that he lacked guilty knowledge the substance was fentanyl. Defendant pointed to the officer’s testimony that “everyone” believed the substance was cocaine, but “[r]ead in context, it is apparent that [the officer] was referring to the knowledge of the officers who initially arrested [defendant and another suspect] for possession of cocaine, as the excerpted testimony immediately follows a lengthy discussion of their rationale for doing so.” Slip Op. at 8. Because defendant did not testify and no other evidence supported his contention that he lacked knowledge, his circumstances differed from other cases where a defendant was entitled to a guilty knowledge instruction. The court explained that evidence of a crime lacking specific intent, like trafficking by possession, creates a presumption that defendant has the required guilty knowledge; unless other evidence in the record calls this presumption into question, a jury does not have to be instructed regarding guilty knowledge. Id. at 9. 

 

In this Lincoln County case, the defendant stole a car left running outside of a gas station. A three-year old child was in the backseat. Once officers attempted to stop the car, the defendant led police on a high-speed chase and ultimately crashed. The child was not harmed. During the chase, the defendant called 911 and attempted to bargain for the child’s release. He was charged with first-degree kidnapping, abduction of a child, larceny of a motor vehicle, possession of stolen property, and habitual felon. The jury convicted on all counts. The defendant did not appeal, but later filed a petition for writ of certiorari seeking review of his convictions, which was granted.

(1) The child abduction statute includes language that the offense must occur “without legal justification or excuse.” See G.S. § 14-41(a). The defendant contended that this language required the State to prove that the defendant acted willfully, and that the failure to instruct the jury on mens rea improperly treated the crime as a strict liability offense. The Court of Appeals disagreed. There is no requirement of “willfulness” in the language of the statute. While the offense is not a strict liability crime, it is also not a specific intent crime as defendant argued. Rather, the offense is a general intent crime, requiring a showing only that the defendant acted “knowingly.” The “without justification or excuse” language in the statute allows the defendant to argue defenses like mistake of fact, necessity, or others, but does not create a specific intent requirement. This argument was therefore rejected. 

(2) There was sufficient evidence to support the conviction for child abduction. The evidence showed that the defendant continued driving the car at high speeds while fleeing police, even after realizing that a child was in the backseat. After the point at which the defendant called 911 and acknowledged the presence of the child in the car, he continued to disobey police and dispatch commands to stop and continued fleeing for at least 15 minutes. Though “[a] defendant may exculpate a mistake though subsequent conduct,” the defendant here made no such showing. Slip op. at 10.

(3) There was no error, much less plain error, in the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury that the defendant must have acted willfully in abducting the child, for the same reasons that the statute does not create a specific intent crime. There was therefore no error in the trial court’s instructions to the jury for that offense.

(4) During a pretrial conference, the parties agreed that the jury would be instructed only on removal as the State’s theory for first-degree kidnapping, which was the theory alleged in the indictment. At charge conference, the State requested and received jury instructions on all three possible theories (restraint, removal, or confinement). See G.S. § 14-39. Trial counsel for the defendant assented to those instructions and did not otherwise object. Despite trial counsel’s agreement, this argument was not waived and could be reviewed for plain error. However, the court found no plain error based on the evidence (which supported each theory), and the fact that there was no conflicting evidence as to the three theories. “Defendant cannot demonstrate plain error because it is undisputed that the evidence at trial supported the theory of kidnapping alleged in the indictment––removal––and also supported the two additional theories of kidnapping included in the instruction––restraint and confinement.” French Slip op. at 12.

(5) The trial court erred in sentencing the defendant for possession of stolen goods (the car) and larceny of a motor vehicle. “A defendant cannot be convicted of both [of these] offenses when the subject property is the same.” Id. at 14. The Court of Appeals therefore vacated the conviction for the possession of stolen goods conviction and found no error as to the defendant’s other convictions.

In a discharging a barreled weapon into occupied property case, the trial court did not err by instructing the jury that because the crime was a general intent crime, the State need not prove that the defendant intentionally discharged the firearm into occupied property, and that it needed only prove that he intentionally discharged the firearm.

 

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s request for a diminished capacity instruction with respect to a charge of discharging a firearm into occupied property that served as a felony for purposes of a felony-murder conviction. Because discharging a firearm into occupied property is a general intent crime, diminished capacity offers no defense.

State v. Greenfield, 375 N.C. 434 (Sept. 25, 2020)

In this felony murder case based on the underlying felony of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury, the trial court erred by not instructing the jury on self-defense and the doctrine of transferred intent.  The evidence at trial showed that the defendant and a friend arrived at the apartment of Beth and Jon intending to buy marijuana from Jon.  By the time the defendant and his friend left the apartment, Jon, Beth, and the defendant had been shot.  Jon died as a result.  The defendant testified that while in the apartment living room, he picked up a gun he found on a coffee table because “it looked cool,” which caused Jon to become aggressive and Beth to emerge from a bedroom pointing a gun at the defendant.  After convincing Beth to drop her weapon by threatening to kill Jon, the defendant testified that he ran from the apartment, saw Jon pull a gun, and felt himself be shot in the side.  This caused the defendant to shoot in Jon’s direction “as best as [he] could” and “intentionally” at him.  The court explained that this testimony taken in the light most favorable to the defendant entitled him to a jury instruction on perfect self-defense for any shot intended for Jon because , if believed, it showed (1) he subjectively believed that he was going to die if he did not return fire; (2) such a belief was reasonable; (3) he was not the aggressor; and (4) did not use excessive force.  Further, he was entitled to an instruction on self-defense through transferred intent for the AWDWIKISI charge relating to Beth as her injury could have been caused by a bullet intended for Jon.  The trial court correctly gave a self-defense instruction on premeditated murder but erred by refusing to give the defendant’s requested self-defense instruction on felony murder or any underlying felony, including the assault.  This error was prejudicial because it impaired the defendant’s ability to present his defense to felony murder and the assault charge. 

In addition, the Court of Appeals erred by remanding the case for entry of a judgment convicting the defendant of second-degree murder, a verdict the jury returned after the trial court accepted a partial verdict on the felony murder charge and directed the jury to continue to deliberate on the premeditated murder charge.  The trial court’s decision to require continued deliberation and its associated instructions could have resulted in an improper finding by the jury that the defendant was guilty of second-degree murder.  Thus, the court remanded for a new trial on all charges.

Justice Newby dissented, stating his view that the trial court’s jury instructions, which included a general transferred-intent instruction but not the specific instruction requested by the defendant, enabled the defendant to make the jury argument he desired.  Justice Newby interpreted the jury’s verdicts as a rejection of the defendant’s self-defense theory.

 

In this New Hanover County case, defendant appealed after being found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, arguing (1) the indictment for attempted first-degree murder failed to include an essential element of the offense, (2) error in denying his motion to dismiss one of the attempted murder charges, and (3) error in admitting evidence of past acts of violence and abuse against two former romantic partners. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In August of 2014, after defendant assaulted his girlfriend, a protective order was granted against him. On December 22, 2014, defendant tried to reconcile with his girlfriend, but she refused; the girlfriend went to the house of a friend and stayed with her for protection. Early the next morning, defendant tried to obtain a gun from an acquaintance, and when that failed, he purchased a gas can and filled it with gas. Using the gas can, defendant set fires at the front entrance and back door of the home where his girlfriend was staying. Five people were inside when defendant set the fires, and two were killed by the effects of the flames. Defendant was indicted for first-degree arson, two counts of first-degree murder, and three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and was convicted on all counts (the trial court arrested judgment on the arson charge).

Examining issue (1), the Court of Appeals explained that “with malice aforethought” was represented in the indictment by “the specific facts from which malice is shown, by ‘unlawfully, willfully, and feloniously . . . setting the residence occupied by the victim(s) on fire.’” Slip Op. at 10. Because the ultimate facts constituting each element of attempted first-degree murder were present in the indictment, the lack of “with malice” language did not render the indictment flawed.

Considering defendant’s argument (2), that he did not have specific intent to kill one of the victims because she was a family member visiting from Raleigh, the court found that the doctrine of transferred intent supported his conviction. Under the doctrine, “[t]he actor’s conduct toward the victim is ‘interpreted with reference to his intent and conduct towards his adversary[,]’ and criminal liability for the third party’s death is determined ‘as [if] the fatal act had caused the death of [the intended victim].’” Id. at 12, quoting State v. Locklear, 331 N.C. 239 (1992). Here defendant was attempting to kill his girlfriend, and the intent transferred to the other victims inside the home at the time he set the fires.

Considering (3) the admission of several prior acts of violence by defendant towards his girlfriend and another romantic partner, the court first determined the evidence was relevant under Rules of Evidence 401 and 402, and conducted an analysis under Rule 404(b), finding the evidence tended to show intent, motive, malice, premeditation, and deliberation. The court then looked for abuse of discretion by the trial court under the Rule 403 standard, finding that the admission of the relevant evidence did not represent error.

There was sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation when, after having a confrontation with an individual named Thomas, the defendant happened upon Thomas and without provocation began firing at him, resulting in the death of the victim, an innocent bystander. Citing the doctrine of transferred intent, the court noted that “malice or intent follows the bullet.”

The doctrine of transferred intent permits the conviction of a defendant for discharging a weapon into occupied property when the defendant intended to shoot a person but instead shot into property that he or she knew was occupied.

 

An instruction on transferred intent was proper in connection with a charge of attempted first-degree murder of victim B where the evidence showed that B was injured during the defendant’s attack on victim A, undertaken with a specific intent to kill A.

The defendant, a fisherman, was charged with violating marine fisheries regulations after he left gill nets and crab pots unattended for too long. The officer that cited Defendant for these violations used a form citation indicating that the Defendant was being charged with committing these regulatory violations “unlawfully and willfully.” The defendant was convicted by a jury of the unattended gill net offense in superior court. (1) On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court committed plain error by failing to instruct the jury that the State must prove that his violation was willful, contending that the offense was not a strict liability offense. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that G.S. 113-135(a), the statute that criminalizes the conduct at issue, did not establish a mens rea for the offense. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that the General Assembly did not authorize the creation of strict liability regulatory offenses. In light of the language of the statutes governing these “public welfare” offenses, their relatively minor punishment, and the logistical difficulty of investigating the willfulness of every such violation, the Court held that they are strict liability offenses that do not require the State to prove intent. (2) The Court also held that the trial court did not err in failing to instruct the jury on willfulness, despite the language in the charging instrument alleging that the defendant acted “willfully.” That language went beyond the elements of the offense and was properly disregarded as surplusage.

State v. Miller, 246 N.C. App. 330 (Mar. 15, 2016) rev’d on other grounds, 369 N.C. 658 (Jun 9 2017)

G.S. 90-95(d1)(1)(c) (possession of pseudoephedrine by person previously convicted of possessing methamphetamine is a Class H felony) is a strict liability offense. 

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