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., 01/29/2022
E.g., 01/29/2022

The defendant lived in a trailer home with her boyfriend. In January 2015, the boyfriend’s three-year-old nephew came to stay with the couple for several days. The defendant would care for the child while the boyfriend and other nearby family members were at work. On a particular day, the defendant took four tablets of Xanax, in excess of the recommend three tablets a day. The boyfriend left for work, and the defendant checked on the child. The defendant turned on a space heater in the living room and went to the bathroom to smoke a cigarette. When she returned to the living room, she noticed that there were sparks coming from either the heater or the electric outlet and that the sparks were already causing the couch to smoke.

In a failed attempt to stop the burning, the defendant smothered the fire with a blanket. The defendant testified that she did not immediately get the child out of the trailer because she thought she could put out the fire. The mobile home did not have any running water, and the defendant tried unsuccessfully to use the fire extinguisher. After yelling for help, a neighbor arrived and escorted the defendant out of the trailer home. As the events progressed, the defendant was asked several times if there was anyone else inside the home, and each time, the defendant responded that there wasn’t.

When the fire department arrived, the defendant again answered that there was no one in the home, which a firefighter in turn relayed to dispatch. By the time a family member arrived and insisted that the child was still in the home, the firefighter informed him that there was no longer any way to safely enter the home. Once the crews gained access to the home, they found the deceased child on the bedroom floor.

During the initial trial proceedings, the trial judge inadvertently mentioned that the defense attorneys were from the public defender’s office. The court then denied a motion to strike the entire jury venire. The court also denied the defendant’s motions to dismiss the charges for insufficient evidence. The defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and orally provided notice of appeal.

(1) The defendant’s first argument on appeal was that the trial court erred in denying her motion to strike the jury venire, because it denied her right to a fair trial before an impartial jury. The Court of Appeals held that the single passing reference made under these facts did not warrant a new trial because the jury could not reasonably infer the trial court’s introduction of the parties to be an opinion on a factual issue in the case, the defendant’s guilt, nor the weight of the evidence or a witness’s credibility.

(2) The defendant next argued that her involuntary manslaughter conviction must be vacated because the State did not meet its burden of proving that the defendant’s criminally negligent actions proximately caused the child’s death. Noting (i) the defendant’s admission that she could have removed the child from the burning home when she exited, (ii) the defendant’s omissions to her neighbors and the firefighters regarding the child’s presence in the burning home, and (iii) the deceased child’s airway being coated with soot, the Court of Appeals held that there was substantial evidence in the record that the defendant’s culpably negligent acts and omissions proximately caused the child’s unintentional death and that the evidence was sufficient to send the case to the jury.

(3) The defendant’s final argument was that the short-form indictment charging her with involuntary manslaughter was fatally defective for lack of sufficient notice of involuntary manslaughter’s essential elements. In rejecting this assertion, the Court of Appeals noted that the constitutionality of the statutory short-form indictment at issue has previously been upheld by both the Court of Appeals and the state Supreme Court.

In a case where the defendant was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter on the theory that he committed an unlawful act which proximately caused the victim’s death, the trial court committed reversible error by refusing to give a jury instruction on defense of others as an affirmative defense to the unlawful act at issue. The defendant was involved in an altercation at a waterfront bar that resulted in the death of the victim. The defendant’s version of the events was that the victim fell into the water and drown after physical contact by the defendant; the defendant claimed to be defending his friend Jimmy, who had been shoved by the victim. The unlawful act at issue was the offense of affray. On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court committed reversible error by refusing to instruct the jury on defense of others as an affirmative defense to the crime of affray. The defendant asserted that his only act—a single shove—was legally justified because he was defending his friend and thus was not unlawful. The court agreed. It noted that the state Supreme Court has previously sanctioned the use of self-defense by a defendant as an appropriate defense when the defendant is accused of unlawfully participating in affray. Where, as here, the State prosecuted the defendant for involuntary manslaughter based on the theory that the defendant committed an unlawful act (as opposed to the theory that the defendant committed a culpably negligent act) “the defendant is entitled to all instructions supported by the evidence which relate to the unlawful act, including any recognized affirmative defenses to the unlawful act.” Here, the evidence supports the defendant’s argument that the instruction on defense of others was warranted. Among other things, there was evidence that Jimmy felt threatened when shoved by the victim; that the defendant immediately advanced towards the victim in response to his contact with Jimmy; that the victim punched and kicked the defendant; and that the defendant only struck the victim once. The defendant was thus entitled to a defense of others instruction to affray. The court was careful to note that it took no position as to whether the defendant did in fact act unlawfully. It held only that the defendant was entitled to the instruction. The court also noted that the issue in this case is not whether self-defense is a defense to involuntary manslaughter; the issue in this case is whether self-defense is an affirmative defense to affray, the unlawful act used as the basis for the involuntary manslaughter charge.

 

The trial court did not commit plain error by failing to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of involuntary manslaughter. In the context of a shooting, the charge of involuntary manslaughter requires evidence of the absence of intent to discharge the weapon. This fact distinguishes involuntary manslaughter from its voluntary counterpart, which requires proof of intent. The defendant’s argument fails because there was no evidence at trial suggesting that the defendant did not intend to shoot his wife. Rather, the defendant’s defense relied on his argument that he was in a state of automatism--a complete defense to all criminal charges--which the jury rejected. Here, there was no evidence suggesting that the shooting was an accident.

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a second-degree murder charge where there was insufficient evidence of malice and the evidence showed that the death resulted from a mishap with a gun. The court remanded for entry of judgment for involuntary manslaughter.

The trial court properly denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of involuntary manslaughter. The primary issue raised in the defendant’s appeal was whether there was sufficient evidence that the defendant committed a culpably negligent act which proximately resulted in the victim’s death. The evidence showed that the defendant became angry at the victim during the defendant’s party and “kicked or stomped” his face, leaving the victim semiconscious; the defendant was irritated that he had to take the victim to meet the victim’s parents at a church; instead of taking the victim to the church, the defendant drove him to an isolated parking area and again beat him; the defendant abandoned the victim outside knowing that the temperature was in the 20s and that the victim had been beaten, was intoxicated, and was not wearing a shirt; the defendant realized his actions put the victim in jeopardy; and even after being directly informed by his father that the victim was missing and that officers were concerned about him, the defendant lied about where he had last seen the victim, hindering efforts to find and obtain medical assistance for the victim. On these facts, the court had “no difficulty” concluding that there was sufficient evidence that the defendant’s actions were culpably negligent and that he might have foreseen that some injury would result from his act or omission, or that consequences of a generally injurious nature might have been expected.

The trial court did not err by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss a charge of involuntary manslaughter where a person under 21 years of age died as a result of alcohol poisoning and it was alleged that the defendant aided and abetted the victim in the possession or consumption of alcohol in violation or G.S. 18B-302. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State was required to prove that the defendant provided the victim with the specific alcohol he drank on the morning of his death. The court concluded that the evidence was sufficient, stating:

The evidence established that defendant frequently hosted parties at her home during which defendant was aware that underage people, including [the victim], consumed alcohol. On at least one occasion, defendant was seen offering alcohol to [the victim], and defendant knew the [victim] was under the age of 21. The State presented substantial evidence that defendant’s actions of allowing [the victim] to consume, and providing [the victim] with, alcohol were part of a plan, scheme, system, or design that created an environment in which [the victim] could possess and consume alcohol and that her actions were to consume, and providing [the victim] with, alcohol were part of a plan, scheme, system, or design that created an environment in which [the victim] could possess and consume alcohol and that her actions were done knowingly and were not a result of mistake or accident. Viewed in the light most favorable to the State, we conclude the evidence was sufficient to allow a reasonable juror to conclude that defendant assisted and encouraged [the victim] to possess and consume the alcohol that caused his death.

G.S. 20-141.4(c) does not bar simultaneous prosecutions for involuntary manslaughter and death by vehicle; it only bars punishment for both offenses when they arise out of the same death.

The State presented sufficient evidence of involuntary manslaughter. The State proved that an unlawful killing occurred with evidence that the defendant committed the misdemeanor of improper storage of a firearm. Additionally, the State presented sufficient evidence that the improper storage was the proximate cause of the child’s death.

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