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., 02/04/2023
E.g., 02/04/2023

The defendant was indicted for seven crimes arising from a domestic violence incident. The defendant severely beat his wife, resulting in her being hospitalized for six days where she was treated for extensive swelling and bruising to face and neck, fractures to rib bones and bones around her eyes, strangulation, contusions, and kidney failure induced by toxins released from skeletal muscle destruction. Following trial, the defendant was convicted of six of the seven charges and was sentenced to four consecutive sentences totaling 578 to 730 months. The defendant appealed.

(1) On appeal, the defendant first argued that the trial court committed plain error in failing to instruct the jury on the lesser-included offense of attempted voluntary manslaughter because the evidence showed that the defendant lacked the requisite intent for attempted first-degree murder. The defendant contended that the State failed to conclusively prove he had the requisite intent of premeditation and deliberation to commit first-degree murder because evidence at trial showed that he assaulted his wife spontaneously in response to adequate provocation. In rejecting this argument, the Court of Appeals noted that there was overwhelming evidence at trial supporting premeditation and deliberation. Although the wife admitted during trial that she stabbed the defendant in the chest with a knife, the defendant’s testimony confirmed that the subsequent assault lasted multiple hours, and the defendant testified that he “knew what he was doing” and agreed that he “could have left at any time.” Slip op. at ¶ 27. The Court thus held that this the defendant’s testimony did not warrant an instruction on attempted voluntary manslaughter.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court did not ensure the defendant had knowingly consented before allowing defense counsel to concede the defendant’s guilt to multiple charges. The defendant contended that statements made by his defense counsel during opening and closing statements constituted an implied admission of his guilt because counsel (i) told the jury that the defendant “beat” his wife and (ii) argued only against the charge of first-degree murder and did not mention the defendant’s other charges in closing argument. The Court of Appeals held that defense counsel’s reference to the defendant having beaten his wife did not amount to a Harbison error because the defendant chose to testify on his own behalf, under oath, with full awareness that he did not have to testify. The defendant then repeatedly admitted that he beat his wife. The Court concluded that defense counsel repeated the defendant’s own testimony, then urged the jury to evaluate the truth in defendant’s words, and that defense counsel’s statements could logically be interpreted as a recitation of facts presented at trial.

(3) The defendant’s final argument was that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss the charge of first-degree kidnapping because the State failed to introduce sufficient evidence of confinement separate from that which was inherent in the commission of the assaults on his wife. In rejecting this argument, the Court reasoned that the State presented evidence that the defendant confined his wife to her apartment through actions apart from confinement inherent in the many instances of assault, and the evidence allowed a reasonable inference that the defendant chose to wholly confine his wife to her apartment to prevent her from seeking aid.

State v. Childress, 367 N.C. 693 (Dec. 19, 2014)

The defendant’s actions provided sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation to survive a motion to dismiss an attempted murder charge. From the safety of a car, the defendant drove by the victim’s home, shouted a phrase used by gang members, and then returned to shoot at her and repeatedly fire bullets into her home when she retreated from his attack. The court noted that the victim did not provoke the defendant in any way and was unarmed; the defendant drove by the victim’s home before returning and shooting at her; during this initial drive-by, the defendant or a companion in his car yelled out “[W]hat’s popping,” a phrase associated with gang activity that a jury may interpret as a threat; the defendant had a firearm with him; and the defendant fired multiple shots toward the victim and her home. This evidence supported an inference that the defendant deliberately and with premeditation set out to kill the victim.

In this Randolph County case,  the Court of Appeals upheld defendant’s conviction for solicitation to commit first-degree murder, finding no prejudicial error by the trial court.

In 2018, defendant, a high school student, confessed to his girlfriend that he had homicidal thoughts towards several of his fellow students, and attempted to recruit his girlfriend to help him act on them. His girlfriend showed the messages they exchanged to her mother and the school resource officer, leading to further investigation that found defendant had a cache of guns and knives, as well as a detailed list of persons he wished to kill and methods he would use. When the matter came to trial, the state offered testimony from 11 of the 13 persons on the kill list, and during closing arguments made reference to the “current events” that were presumably mass shootings at high schools. Defendant was subsequently convicted in 2020.

Reviewing the appeal, the court first considered (a) defendant’s motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence, reviewing whether defendant solicited his girlfriend for the crime. The court found sufficient evidence of solicitation, explaining that solicitation is an “attempt to conspire,” and the offense does not require fully communicating the details of the plan. Instead, once defendant proposed the killings he had planned to his girlfriend, and attempted to recruit her to assist, the offense was complete, despite the fact that he did not fully share his detailed plans. Slip Op. at 12-13.

The court next considered (b), dismissing defendant’s argument that the indictment fatally varied from the jury instruction; the court found that this was actually an attempt to present an instructional error “within the Trojan horse of a fatal variance.” Id. at 15. Considering (c), the court disagreed with defendant’s allegation that Rules of Evidence 401 and 402 barred admission of defendant’s drawings and notes of the Joker and weapons, and testimony from 11 of the potential victims. The drawings were relevant to show defendant’s state of mind and evaluate the nature of the potential crime, and the testimony was relevant to show the potential victims were real people and that defendant had the specific intent to commit the crime. Id. at 17-18. The court also considered (d) whether Rule of Evidence 403 barred admission of this evidence as prejudicial, finding no abuse of discretion as “the evidence served a probative function arguably above and beyond inflaming [the jury’s passions].” Id. at 20.

Considering the final issue (e), whether the trial court should have intervened ex mero moto during the state’s closing argument, the court found error but not prejudicial error. The court found error in the state’s closing argument when the prosecutor “appealed to the jury’s sympathies by describing the nature of the Joker and insinuating that [d]efendant was planning a mass shooting.” Id. at 25. The court presumed that these statements were intended to suggest that defendant’s conviction would assist in preventing another mass shooting, but noted that they did not rise to the level of prejudicial error due to the other factual details in the argument, and the “multiple items of physical evidence and segments of testimony evidencing [d]efendant’s intent.” Id. at 28.

In this Brunswick County case, defendant appealed denial of her motion to dismiss the murder charge against her, arguing that it represented double jeopardy. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion. The facts of this case are substantially similar to State v. Tripp, 2022-NCCOA-795, as the defendant in this case is the mother of the child that was abused, and the defendant in Tripp was her boyfriend at the time.

Following the same analysis as the opinion in Tripp, the court applied the same-elements test from Blockburger v. United States, 284 U.S. 299 (1932), and the exception for requisite elements of the crime found in Diaz v. United States, 223 U.S. 442 (1912), to establish the prosecution for murder was not double jeopardy under the felony murder theory. The court also noted “prosecution for first-degree murder theories such as premeditation and deliberation or torture satisfies the Blockburger test and does not violate [d]efendant’s constitutional right to be protected against double jeopardy.” Slip Op. at 10. The court dismissed defendant’s argument that due process protections prevented her prosecution so long after the events, noting the State could not bring charges for murder until the victim’s death.

In this Guilford County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon, arguing the trial court erred by (1) denying his motions to dismiss, (2) giving an improper jury instruction on deliberation, and (3) failing to give defendant’s requested “stand your ground” instruction. The Court of Appeals found no error.

In 2017, defendant was at a house drinking alcohol with two other men when an argument broke out between defendant and the eventual victim. The victim yelled in defendant’s face and spit on him, threatening to kill defendant the next time he saw him. Notably, the victim’s threat was to kill defendant at a later time, and the victim stated he would not do so in the house where they were drinking. After the victim yelled in defendant’s face, defendant drew a pistol and shot the victim six times; defendant fled the scene and did not turn himself in until 18 days later.

Reviewing the trial court’s denial of defendant’s motions to dismiss, the court noted that “evidence of a verbal altercation does not serve to negate a charge of first-degree murder when ‘there was other evidence sufficient to support the jury’s finding of both deliberation and premeditation.’” Slip Op. at 8, quoting State v. Watson, 338 N.C. 168, 178 (1994). The court found such evidence in the instant case, with defendant’s prior history of quarrels with the victim, the number of gunshots, defendant’s fleeing the scene and remaining on the run for 18 days, and with defendant’s statements to his girlfriend regarding his intention to deny the charges.

The court then turned to the disputed jury instructions, first explaining that defendant’s request for an additional explanation on deliberation beyond that contained in Pattern Jury Instruction 206.1 was based on a dissenting opinion in State v. Patterson, 288 N.C. 553 (1975) which carried no force of law, and the instruction given contained adequate explanation of the meaning of “deliberation” for first-degree murder. Slip Op. at 11. The court next considered the “stand your ground” instruction, comparing the trial court’s instruction on self-defense to the version offered by defendant. Looking to State v. Benner, 380 N.C. 621 (2022), the court found that “the use of deadly force cannot be excessive and must still be proportional even when the defendant has no duty to retreat and is entitled to stand his ground.” Slip Op. at 14. The court also noted that the “stand your ground” statute requires proportionality in defendant’s situation, explaining “[d]efendant could use deadly force against the victim under [N.C.G.S. §] 14-51.3(a) only if it was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm, i.e., if it was proportional.” Id. at 16-17. Finally, the court determined that even if the trial court erred in failing to give the instruction, it was not prejudicial, as overwhelming evidence in the record showed that defendant was not under threat of imminent harm, noting “[l]ethal force is not a proportional response to being spit on.” Id. at 17.

In this Burke County case, the defendant appealed after he was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder. The case arose out of an altercation between the defendant and his apartment neighbor, Hubert Hunter, Jr. After Hunter was found dead in his own apartment, a maintenance worker found a plastic bag containing bloodstained clothing and a kitchen knife in a dumpster behind the apartment building. DNA on the knife matched the victim and DNA on the clothing matched the defendant. A medical examination of the victim showed that he had three stabbing and slashing wounds to his neck, one of which was deep enough to fracture his spine, as well as hemorrhaging of blood vessels indicating that the ultimate cause of death was strangulation. Law enforcement interviewed the defendant multiple times. He first denied fighting with Hunter, but later said that he had gone to Hunter’s apartment to collect $3 Hunter owed him, which led to a fight in which the victim “pulled a knife.” The defendant admitted to choking the victim as they wrestled in an attempt to make him pass out and stop fighting, but said that he was struggling in self-defense after the victim grabbed the knife and that any stabbing was incidental. The defendant also claimed that he himself passed out during the struggle. The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and appealed. 

(1) The defendant first argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss based on insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in dismissing the motion. The evidence showed the defendant threatened the victim, beat him severely, did not seek medical assistance after the fight, and attempted to cover up the killing by disposing of his bloodied clothes and the knife. The Court rejected the defendant’s contention that his own black out undermined the State’s theory of premeditation and deliberation and instead showed he acted in a state of passion; other evidence sufficed to submit the issue to the jury, and it was for them to weigh the evidence presented.

(2) The defendant next argued that the trial court committed plain error by failing to instruct the jury on the defense of automatism in light of the defendant’s statement that he blacked out during the altercation with the victim. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting that the only evidence of the defendant blacking out came from his own self-serving statements, which, moreover, were contradicted by his other statements and general ability to recall the details of the fight. Because the defendant’s statements about blacking out were insufficient to satisfy a reasonable jury that he lacked consciousness, the trial court did not plainly err by failing to give the instruction.

(3) Next, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to intervene ex mero motu in the State’s questioning of prospective jurors. The State’s questions included hypothetical questions like “If you were in fear for your life and had a weapon, would you defend yourself or would you run away?” The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in failing to intervene because the State’s questions did not stake jurors out by asking them to consider specific circumstances and forecast their ultimate verdict.

(4) Finally, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by not intervening ex mero motu during closing arguments when the State claimed that the defendant, not the victim, handled the knife, thereby misleading the jury on the central issue of self-defense. The Court of Appeals disagreed, concluding that trial court did not err when the State’s arguments drew reasonable inferences from the evidence and did not rely on evidence outside the trial record.

Having rejected each of the defendant’s arguments, the Court concluded that the defendant’s trial was free from error.

The defendant was convicted after a jury trial of first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and other serious felony charges after he shot and killed his former girlfriend and then pistol-whipped and fired a gun at another woman, a registered nurse. In light of the facts of the case, the Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss the attempted first-degree murder charge for insufficiency of the evidence that he acted with premeditation and deliberation. The State proved, among other things, that the defendant said he would kill her and that he shot the door near the doorknob four to six times before kicking the door and yelling, which the court deemed sufficient evidence for the jury to reasonably conclude that the defendant attempted to kill the victim with premeditation and deliberation.

The appellate court also concluded that the defendant could not demonstrate prejudicial error resulting from the trial court’s deadly weapon malice instruction. The defendant argued that the instruction could have been misleading to the extent that it allowed an inference of malice on the attempted murder charge for shooting at the victim based on the injury resulting from a different crime, the pistol-whipping. Based on the defendant’s use of a weapon and the related circumstances, the court was unpersuaded that the jury would have reached a different result without the instruction.

In this murder case, there was sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation. The evidence showed that the victim suffered from a heart condition and other ailments. In the months before his death, the defendant and the victim--who were married--were arguing about financial issues. The defendant began a romantic relationship with her therapist and planned to ask the victim for divorce. A search of the home computer discovered Internet searches including “upon death of the veteran,” “can tasers kill people,” “can tasers kill people with a heart condition,” “what is the best handgun for under $200,” “death in absentia USA,” and “declare someone dead if missing 3 years.” On the date of death, the defendant visited her nephew, expressed concern about her safety due to break-ins in her neighborhood, and received from her nephew a gun and a knife. Shortly after that, she returned home and asked the victim to go on a drive with her. The defendant took the gun and knife in the car and used the weapons to kill the victim, shooting him and stabbing him approximately 12 times. Later in the day, the defendant messaged her therapist “it’s almost done” and “it got ugly.” After the incident, the defendant got rid of her bloodstained clothing, threw away the victim’s medications and identification, and said that he had either gone to Florida or was at a rehabilitation center.

In this first-degree murder case, the evidence was sufficient to go to the jury on the theory of premeditation and deliberation. Among other things, there was no provocation by the victim, who was unarmed; the defendant shot the victim at least four times; and after the shooting the defendant immediately left the scene without aiding the victim.

In this first-degree murder case there was sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation. Among other things, the evidence showed a lack of provocation by the victim, that just prior to the shooting the defendant told others that he was going to shoot a man over a trivial matter, that the defendant shot the victim 3 times and that the victim may have been turning away from or trying to escape at the time.

In a first-degree murder case, there was sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation. The court noted that the victim did not provoke the defendant and that the evidence was inconsistent with the defendant’s claim of self-defense.

In this first-degree murder case, the evidence was sufficient to show premeditation and deliberation. After some words in a night club parking lot the defendant shot the victim, who was unarmed, had not reached for a weapon, had not engaged the defendant in a fight, and did nothing to provoke the defendant’s violent response. After the victim fell from the defendant’s first shot, the defendant shot the victim 6 more times. Instead of then trying to help the victim, the defendant left the scene and attempted to hide evidence.

In a first-degree murder case there was sufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation. There was evidence that the victim begged for his life, that the victim’s body had eight gunshot wounds, primarily in the head and chest, and there was a lack of provocation.

The State presented sufficient evidence that the defendant acted with premeditation and deliberation where, among other things, the defendant did not want a second child and asked his wife to get an abortion, he was involved in a long-term extramarital affair with a another woman who testified that the defendant was counting down the seconds until his first child would go to college so that he could leave his wife, the defendant had made plans to move out of his martial home but reacted angrily when his wife suggested that if the couple divorced she might move out of the state and take the children with her, and shortly before he shot his wife, he placed her cell phone out of her reach.

In a first-degree murder case, there was sufficient evidence of premeditation, deliberation, and intent to kill. After the defendant and an accomplice beat and kicked the victim, they hog-tied him so severely that his spine was fractured, and put tissue in his mouth. Due to the severe arching of his back, the victim suffered a fracture in his thoracic spine and died from a combination of suffocation and strangulation.

(1) The defendant’s statement that he formed the intent to kill the victim and contemplated whether he would be caught before he began the attack was sufficient evidence that he formed the intent to kill in a cool state of blood for purposes of a first-degree murder charge. (2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that his evidence of alcohol and crack cocaine induced intoxication negated the possibility of premeditation and deliberation as a matter of law.

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