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., 02/28/2024
E.g., 02/28/2024

In this Mecklenburg County case, the Supreme Court modified and affirmed the Court of Appeals majority opinion that held defendant was not entitled to an instruction on second-degree murder as a lesser included offense while on trial for first-degree murder based on the felony-murder rule. 

On Father’s Day in 2017, defendant and an associate arranged to sell a cellphone to a man through the LetGo app. However, during the meeting to sell the phone, the deal went wrong and defendant’s associate shot the buyer. Defendant came to trial for attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon, first-degree murder under the felony murder theory, and conspiracy to commit robbery with his associate. The trial court denied defendant’s request for an instruction on second-degree murder as a lesser-included offense. Defendant was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and attempted robbery, but not the conspiracy charge. The Court of Appeals majority found no error, applying “the second part of the test” from State v. Gwynn, 362 N.C. 334 (2008), to conclude “defendant was not entitled to a second-degree murder instruction because ‘there [was] no evidence in the record from which a rational juror could find [d]efendant guilty of second-degree murder and not guilty of felony murder.’” Slip Op. at 6. 

Taking up the appeal, the Supreme Court explained that defendant was only entitled to an instruction on lesser-included offenses if “(1) the evidence supporting the underlying felony is ‘in conflict,’ and (2) the evidence would support a lesser-included offense of first-degree murder.” Id. at 9. The Court examined the elements of attempted robbery and found supporting evidence, while rejecting the three issues raised by defendant that attempted to show the evidence was “in conflict.” Id. at 15. Applying the first part of the test from Gwynn, the Court determined that there was no conflict in the evidence supporting the underlying attempted robbery felony. Modifying the Court of Appeals majority’s analysis, the Court explained that “[b]ecause there was not a conflict in the evidence, we need not proceed to the next step of the Gwynnanalysis to consider whether the evidence would support a lesser-included offense of first-degree murder.” Id. at 17. 

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Riggs, dissented and would have found the evidence was “in conflict,” justifying an instruction on second-degree murder under the Gwynn analysis. Id. at 18. 

State v. Steen, 376 N.C. 469 (Dec. 18, 2020)

The defendant appealed from his conviction for the first-degree murder of his grandfather based on the felony murder rule using the attempted murder of his mother with a deadly weapon as the predicate felony. The trial court instructed the jury that it could find the defendant guilty of first-degree murder if it found that he killed his grandfather as part of a continuous transaction during which he also attempted to murder his mother using either his hands or arms or a garden hoe as a deadly weapon. The defendant appealed, arguing that his hands and arms were not properly considered a deadly weapon for purposes of the felony murder rule and that the trial court’s erroneous instruction that the jury could find that he attempted to murder his mother using a garden hoe was prejudicial error.

The defendant was at the home of his mother and grandfather on November 5, 2013. He owed money to both and they had recently told him that they would lend him no more.  As his mother went outside the defendant followed behind her, saying he was leaving to go to work. His mother walked into a storage shed behind the house, where she remained for five or 10 minutes. She did not hear the defendant get into his car or hear the vehicle leave. While she was in the shed, she thought she heard raised voices. She came out to check on her father. As she walked toward the house, she felt someone put an arm around her neck. Her attacker put a hand over her nose and mouth and she lost consciousness. The next thing she remembered was someone opening her eyelid as she lay on the ground. She saw defendant’s face and thought he was there to help her.

The defendant worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., returning home the following morning. When he got home he saw that his mother had been attacked and called for emergency assistance. The defendant’s grandfather was dead when the paramedics arrived. He was face down near the back door, covered in blood, with a large pool of blood around his head. A garden hoe covered in blood was next to his body. The grandfather’s wallet was near his body and did not contain the money usually kept there.

The defendant denied his involvement in the assault and murder. He gave different explanations for the presence of scratches on his arm. DNA evidence from the scene did not connect him to the crime. The defendant’s mother (who experienced a traumatic brain injury) initially told investigators that the defendant left the home before she was attacked and said the person who attacked her was shorter than the defendant and was wearing a ski mask. She testified differently at trial, stating that it was the defendant who had choked her and that there had been no ski mask.

The trial court instructed the jury on multiple theories of first-degree murder, including the felony-murder rule using the attempted murder of the defendant’s mother as the predicate felony. As to the deadly weapon requirement, the court told the jury that the “State contends and the defendant denies that the defendant used his hands and/or arms, and or a garden hoe as a deadly weapon.” The jury convicted the defendant of first-degree murder based on this theory, and the defendant appealed.

The supreme court relied upon a “virtually uninterrupted line of appellate decisions from this Court and the Court of Appeals interpreting the reference to a ‘deadly weapon’ in N.C.G.S. § 14-17(a) to encompass the use of a defendant’s hands, arms, feet, or other appendages” and the “fact that the General Assembly has not taken any action tending to suggest that N.C.G.S. § 14-17(a) should be interpreted in a manner that differs from the interpretation deemed appropriate in this line of decisions” to establish that the General Assembly intended for the term “deadly weapon” to include a defendant’s hands, arms, feet or other appendages. The court rejected the defendant’s invitation to overrule or limit to child victims its holding in State v. Pierce, 346 N.C. 471 (1997) that the offense of felony child abuse could serve as the predicate felony for felony-murder when the defendant used his hands as a deadly weapon in the course of committing the abuse. The court also rejected the defendant’s invitation to rely on State v. Hinton, 361 N.C. 207 (2007) for the proposition that the term “deadly weapon” has different meanings in different contexts and should have a felony-murder specific definition. The Hinton court held that the reference to “any firearms or other dangerous weapon, implement or means” as used in N.C.G.S. § 14-87(a) (defining robbery with a dangerous weapon) did not encompass the use of a defendant’s hands because the statute was intended to provide a “more severe punishment when the robbery is committed with the ‘use or threatened use of firearms or other dangerous weapons’” than when the defendant committed common law robbery, which did not involve the use of such implements. The court reasoned that the logic in Hinton had no application to its interpretation of the felony-murder statute as nothing in the language or legislative history of G.S. 14-17 suggested that its reference to “deadly weapon” should be defined in a way that differed from the traditional definition, which included a person’s appendages.

Finally, the court rejected the notion that its interpretation meant that every killing perpetrated with the use of a defendant’s hands, arm, legs, or other appendages could constitute felony murder, thus undermining the General Assembly’s attempt to limit the scope of the rule when it revised the statute in 1977. The court noted that the extent to which hands, arms, legs, and other appendages can be deemed deadly weapons depends upon the nature and circumstances of their use, including the extent to which there is a size and strength disparity between the perpetrator and his or her victim. Moreover, something more than a killing with hands, arms, legs, or other bodily appendages must be shown (a felony) to satisfy the rule.

The court then considered whether the trial court’s instructions to the jury that it could find that the defendant attempted to murder his mother using a garden hoe was prejudicial error, concluding that it was as there was a reasonable possibility that the jury would not have convicted the defendant of first-degree murder without the erroneous instruction. The court explained that to conclude otherwise, “[w]e would be required to hold that the State’s evidence that defendant killed his grandfather as part of a continuous transaction in which he also attempted to murder his mother using his hands and arms as a deadly weapon was so sufficiently strong that no reasonable possibility exists under which the jury would have done anything other than convict defendant of first-degree murder on the basis of that legal theory.” The sharply disputed evidence over whether the defendant was the perpetrator, including the lack of physical evidence, the defendant’s trial testimony, and the conflicting nature of the statements made by the defendant’s mother, prevented the court from concluding that the error was harmless. Even more central to the court’s analysis was the dispute over the extent to which the defendant’s hands and arms were a deadly weapon. The court noted that although the size and strength differential between defendant and his mother was sufficient to permit a determination that defendant’s hands and arms constituted a deadly weapon, the differences were not so stark as to preclude a reasonable jury from concluding that defendant’s hands and arms were not a deadly weapon. If the jury had reasonably concluded that the defendant’s hands and arms were not used as a deadly weapon, it could not have convicted the defendant of the first-degree murder of his grandfather on the basis of the felony-murder rule, contrary to the suggestion in the jury instruction. As a result, the Court held that the trial court’s instruction concerning the use of the garden hoe as a deadly weapon during defendant’s alleged attempt to murder his mother was prejudicial error necessitating a new trial for the murder of his grandfather.

Justice Newby, joined by Justice Morgan, concurred in part and dissented in part. He agreed with the majority that the defendant’s hands and arms were deadly weapons, but disagreed that the instruction regarding the garden hoe resulted in prejudicial error.

Justice Earls concurred in the result only in part and dissented in part. She agreed with the majority that the instruction regarding the garden hoe was error warranting a new trial. She dissented from the majority’s conclusion that a jury could properly consider a person’s hands, arms, feet, or other body parts to be deadly weapons for purposes of the felony murder statute, reasoning that the legislative history and spirit of the statute demonstrate that the deadly weapon requirement refers to an external instrument.

In this Brunswick County case, defendant appealed denial of his motion to dismiss the murder charge against him, arguing that it represented double jeopardy. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari to review defendant’s interlocutory appeal, and affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion.

In 1997, the fifteen-month-old child of defendant’s girlfriend was taken to the emergency room with severe injuries. A pediatrician who treated the child determined he had Battered Child Syndrome and life-altering brain injuries that would prevent the child from ever living or functioning on his own. One year later, defendant entered an Alford plea to four counts of felony child abuse; defendant completed his sentence in 2008. The child lived in long-term care facility until 2018 when he passed away, allegedly from complications related to his injuries. The State brought charges for first-degree murder against defendant after the 2018 death of the child.

Taking up the double jeopardy argument, the court explained that under the same-elements test from Blockburger v. United States, 284 U.S. 299 (1932), offenses for the same conduct are considered the same unless “each offense contains an element not contained in the other.” Slip Op. at 5, quoting United States v. Dixon, 509 U.S. 688, 696 (1993). The court noted that the charges against defendant for felony child abuse and first-degree murder would normally fail the Blockburger test. However, the court applied the exception found in Diaz v. United States, 223 U.S. 442 (1912), where “a defendant subsequently may be prosecuted for a separate offense if a requisite element for that offense was not an element of the offense charged during the defendant’s prior prosecution.” Slip Op. at 8, citing Diaz. Because the necessary element of the child’s death did not occur until 2018, defendant could not have been prosecuted for the murder in 1998. The court rejected defendant’s arguments to expand the scope of North Carolina’s double jeopardy protection beyond applicable precedent and to apply substantive due process to overturn the denial of his motion.

The defendant was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder under the felony-murder rule. The underlying felony was statutory rape of a child under 13. And yet the jury acquitted the defendant of the charge of statutory rape of a child under 13.  The defendant appealed, arguing that statutory rape of a child under 13 could not support a felony-murder conviction because it lacks the necessary intent to support such a charge. He also argued that because the jury acquitted him of the predicate felony, his first-degree murder conviction must be vacated. The Court of Appeals rejected both arguments.

(1) The Court of Appeals determined that while the offense of statutory rape does not require that the defendant intended to commit a sexual act with an underage person, it does require that the defendant intend to commit a sexual act with the victim. The Court held that this intent satisfies the intent required for a crime to serve as the basis for a felony-murder charge. The Court distinguished the sort of intent required to engage in vaginal intercourse with a victim from the culpable negligence required to commit the offense of assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury based on driving a vehicle while impaired, which the court held in State v. Jones, 353 N.C. 159 (2000), was insufficient to support a felony-murder charge. Statutory rape requires that the person be purposely resolved to participate in the conduct that comprises the criminal offense.

(2) The Court of Appeals determined that the jury verdicts finding the defendant (a) guilty of felony murder with statutory rape as the underlying felony but (b) not guilty of statutory rape were inconsistent but were not legally contradictory or, in other words, mutually exclusive. The Court of Appeals reasoned that a jury could rely on the act of committing statutory rape to support a felony murder conviction without also having a conviction of statutory rape. Indeed, the State could proceed to trial on such a felony murder theory without also charging statutory rape.

The Court noted that a defendant is not entitled to relief for a merely inconsistent verdict as it is not clear in such circumstances “‘whose ox has been gored.’” (Slip op. at ¶ 44 (quoting United States v. Powell, 469 U.S. 57, 65 (1984)). The jury may have thought the defendant was not guilty. Equally possibly, it may have reached an inconsistent verdict through mistake, compromise, or lenity. The defendant receives the benefit of the acquittal, but must accept the burden of conviction.

Rejecting the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim with respect to his first-degree felony murder conviction, the court also rejected the proposition that a felony murder conviction cannot be predicated on a felony of shooting into occupied property where that felony also was the cause of the victim’s death. Reviewing the relevant case law, the court concluded:

[I]t is clear that neither the Supreme Court nor this Court has ever expressly recognized an exception to the felony murder rule for the offense of discharging a weapon into occupied property. At most, North Carolina courts have recognized a very limited “merger doctrine” that precludes use of the felony murder rule in situations where the defendant has committed one assault crime against one victim and the State seeks to use that assault as the predicate felony for a felony murder conviction.

In this case where the defendant was convicted of felony murder with the underlying felony being felony child abuse, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the merger doctrine prevents conviction of first-degree felony murder when there is only one victim and one assault. Although a defendant cannot be sentenced for both the underlying felony and first-degree felony murder, that did not occur here.

(1) The evidence was sufficient to submit felony murder to the jury on the basis of felony larceny with a deadly weapon being the underlying felony. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State failed to show that a beer bottle found at the crime scene was used as a “deadly weapon” within the meaning of the homicide statute, G.S. 14-17. The State’s evidence showed, among other things that the murder victim’s injuries could have been caused by the bottle. Thus, the State presented sufficient evidence that the broken beer bottle constituted a deadly weapon. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the State failed to prove that the defendant used the broken bottle during the commission of the felonious larceny, noting that the evidence showed that after incapacitating the victim with the broken bottle the defendant stole the victim’s vehicle. Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State failed to prove that the killing was committed in the perpetration of the larceny, finding sufficient evidence of a continuous transaction. (2) Where the defendant was convicted of felony murder with the underlying felony being felony larceny, the trial court erred by failing to arrest judgment on the underlying felony.

State v. Juarez, 243 N.C. App. 466 (Oct. 6, 2015) rev’d on other grounds, 369 N.C. 351 (Dec 21 2016)

Felony discharging of a firearm into an occupied vehicle can serve as an underlying felony supporting a charge of felony murder.

In this first-degree murder case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that there was an insufficient relationship between the felony supporting felony-murder (discharging a firearm into occupied property) and the death. The law requires only that the death occur “in the perpetration or attempted perpetration” of a predicate felony; there need not be a causal “causal relationship”’ between the felony and the homicide. All that is required is that the events occur during a single transaction. Here, the defendant stopped shooting into the house after forcing his way through the front door; he then continued shooting inside. The defendant argued that once he was inside the victim attempted to take his gun and that this constituted a break in the chain of events that led to her death. Even if this version of the facts were true, the victim did not break the chain of events by defending herself inside her home after the defendant continued his assault indoors.

In this child homicide case, the trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of felony-murder based on an underlying felony child abuse. Prior to the incident in question the victim was a normal, healthy baby. After having been left alone with the defendant, the victim was found unconscious, unresponsive, and barely breathing. The child’s body had bruises and scratches, including unusual bruises on her buttocks that were not “typical” of the bruises that usually resulted from a fall and a recently inflicted blunt force injury to her ribs that did not appear to have resulted from the administration of CPR. An internal examination showed extensive bilateral retinal hemorrhages in multiple layers of the retinae, significant cerebral edema or swelling, and extensive bleeding or subdural hemorrhage in the brain indicating that her head had been subjected to a number of individual and separate blunt force injuries that were sufficiently significant to damage her brain and to cause a leakage of blood. Her injuries, which could have been caused by human hands, did not result from medical treatment or a mere fall from a couch onto a carpeted floor.

The evidence was sufficient to support a first-degree felony-murder conviction when the underlying felony was armed robbery and where the defendant used the stolen item—a .357 Glock handgun—to commit the murder and the two crimes occurred during a continuous transaction.

The trial court properly submitted felony-murder to the jury based on underlying felony of attempted sale of a controlled substance with the use of a deadly weapon. The defendant and an accomplice delivered cocaine to the victim. Approximately one week later, they went to the victim’s residence to collect the money owed for the cocaine and at this point, the victim was killed. At the time of the shooting, the defendant was engaged in an attempted sale of cocaine (although the cocaine had been delivered, the sale was not consummated because payment had not been made) and there was no break in the chain of events between the attempted sale and the murder.

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