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., 10/21/2021
E.g., 10/21/2021

On March 13, 2016, the defendant was out at a bar in Greensboro with his nephews and several other people to celebrate a friend’s birthday. As they were leaving the bar around 2:00 a.m., another group of men approached and one of them asked a woman in the defendant’s group if she would perform sexual acts for money. The defendant’s group rebuked the other man, and the defendant’s group left the parking lot in two vehicles. When they were stopped at a red light, a vehicle occupied by the second group of men pulled up next to the vehicle in which the defendant was riding. One of the men in the second group smashed a bottle against the defendant’s vehicle, and the second group pursued the defendant’s group at high speed as they drove away. The vehicles all pulled into a nearby parking lot, where two off-duty police officers were parked in a patrol vehicle. As the occupants exited their vehicles, a large fight broke out involving different clusters of people, and one person (“Jones”) was killed. Additional officers responded to the scene and attempted to break up the multiple altercations. None of the officers saw a weapon being used, but Jones and several other individuals had suffered deep lacerations, and their statements to the officers on scene indicated the defendant was the one who cut them with a knife. As the fights were being broken up, an officer saw the defendant walking back towards a vehicle, ignoring commands to stop, and making a furtive movement to throw something into the car. Officers checked the car and found a bloody knife on the driver’s seat. The defendant was searched and also found to have “bath salts” in his pocket. The medical examiner concluded that stab wounds consistent with the knife found in the car caused Jones’ death. Additional evidence indicating that the defendant was the person who mortally wounded Jones included blood found on the defendant’s shoes and clothing, the defendant’s close proximity to the wounded individuals, the defendant’s DNA on the knife, and the defendant’s statements to a private investigator that others were stomping and hitting him so he pulled a knife out of his pocket and “came out swinging.”

The defendant was charged with first-degree murder, possession of 4-chloromethcathinone, and attaining habitual felon status. At the conclusion of a jury trial on the substantive charges, the jury was instructed on first-degree murder, second-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and the controlled substance offense. The jury convicted the defendant of voluntary manslaughter and drug possession. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court should have granted his motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence based on self-defense (or that he received ineffective assistance of counsel if that argument was deemed not adequately preserved), and that the trial court erred in its jury instruction regarding voluntary manslaughter.

Because the jury only convicted the defendant of manslaughter, rather than first- or second-degree murder, and because the state did not advance the theories that the defendant had either killed in the heat of passion or was the initial aggressor, the appellate court concluded that the only issue it needed to determine was whether the state’s evidence was sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss a charge of voluntary manslaughter premised on a killing that would be second-degree murder (committed with malice) but for the fact that the defendant had an imperfect claim of self-defense (based on his use of excessive force). To survive such a motion, the state’s evidence would have to show that the defendant: (1) intentionally wounded Jones; (2) proximately causing his death; (3) under a reasonable belief that use of force was necessary to avoid death or great bodily harm; but (4) the force used was greater than necessary to prevent such harm. Viewed in the light most favorable to the state, there was sufficient evidence in this case from which a reasonable juror could find each of those four factors, and the motion to dismiss was properly denied.

The defendant also argued on appeal that the parties had agreed to use pattern jury instruction 206.10, but the trial court’s actual instructions to the jury did not directly follow the pattern instruction language. If true, a challenge to that instruction would be preserved for appellate review even though the defense did not object. But based on its review of the record, the appellate court held that there was not an agreement to use a specific instruction, so its review of the jury instructions was limited to plain error. After reviewing the instructions as a whole, the appellate court found that the trial court had adequately instructed the jury as to each element and lesser-included offense. “Because the jury was informed of the essential elements it would have to find beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict defendant of voluntary manslaughter, the trial court did not err in its jury instructions.”

The evidence was sufficient with respect to the defendant’s voluntary manslaughter conviction. The defendant was charged with first-degree murder. At trial the defendant admitted that he shot and killed his wife. He argued however that as a result of diabetes, his blood sugar was dangerously low at the time of the shooting, causing him to act in a manner that was not voluntary. The defendant moved for a directed verdict on the first-degree murder charges as well as the lesser charges of second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter. The judge denied this motion and the jury found him guilty of voluntary manslaughter. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that acting in the “heat of passion” was an element of voluntary manslaughter, noting that for this offense the State need only prove that the defendant killed the victim by an intentional and unlawful act and that the defendant’s act was a proximate cause of death. Here, the defendant admitted that he shot his wife. His sole defense was that he did not act voluntarily due to low blood sugar, which put him in a state of automatism. The State presented expert testimony that he was not in such a state. Thus, there was substantial evidence from which the jury could reject the defendant’s automatism defense and conclude that the defendant intentionally shot and killed his wife—the only elements necessary to prove voluntary manslaughter.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a voluntary manslaughter charge. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that there was insufficient evidence that she killed the victim by an intentional and unlawful act, noting that although there was no direct evidence that the defendant was aware that she hit the victim with her car until after it occurred, there was circumstantial evidence that she intentionally struck him. Specifically, the victim had a history, while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol (as he was on the day in question), of acting emotionally and physically abusive towards the defendant; when the victim was angry, he would tell the defendant to “[g]et her stuff and get out,” so the defendant felt “trapped”; on the day in question the victim drank alcohol and allegedly smoked crack before hitting the defendant in the face, knocking her from the porch to the yard; the defendant felt scared and went “to a different state of mind” after being hit; before driving forward in her vehicle, the defendant observed the victim standing in the yard, near the patio stairs; and the defendant struck the stairs because she “wanted to be evil too.” The court concluded: “From this evidence, a jury could find Defendant felt trapped in a cycle of emotional and physical abuse, and after a particularly violent physical assault, she decided it was time to break free.”

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