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., 07/22/2024
E.g., 07/22/2024

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision vacating defendant’s conviction for second-degree rape due to a fatal defect in the indictment. The Court held that a defect in an indictment does not deprive the courts of jurisdiction unless the indictment wholly fails to allege a crime. 

In November of 2017, the victim, a college student home for thanksgiving break, went out in downtown Raleigh with her friends and became intoxicated. At some point during the night, the victim blacked out, and woke up in defendant’s car with him on top of her. Defendant was subsequently convicted of second-degree forcible rape and first-degree kidnapping. On appeal, defendant argued for the first time that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the second-degree forcible rape charge because the indictment did not allege that defendant knew or should have known that the victim was physically helpless at the time of the act. The Court of Appeals agreed and vacated the rape conviction, holding that the indictment failed to allege an essential element of the crime.

Taking up the State’s petition for discretionary review, the Supreme Court first gave a broad historical overview of the jurisdictional indictment rule, beginning with common law and walking through North Carolina constitutional and statutory provisions. The Court ultimately concluded that “[o]ur Constitution and General Statutes, not an indictment, confer the general courts of justice with jurisdiction over criminal laws and the defendants accused of violating such laws.” Slip Op. at 40. Having established that constitutional or statutory defects do not deprive the trial court of jurisdiction, the Court explained that “[a]s these species of errors in a charging document are not jurisdictional, a defendant seeking relief must demonstrate not only that such an error occurred, but also that such error was prejudicial.” Id. at 42. The Court pointed to G.S. 15A-1443 for the appropriate prejudicial error tests. 

The Court then examined the indictment at issue in this case, concluding that “[a] plain reading of [G.S.] 15-144.1(c) demonstrates that the indictment here clearly alleged a crime and was not required to allege actual or constructive knowledge of the victim’s physical helplessness.” Id. at 46. Here the Court noted that the language used in the indictment was simply a modern version of the short-form indictment language, and concluded that the indictment was not deficient. 

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Riggs, concurred in the conclusion that the indictment in this case was not deficient, but dissented from the holding “that constitutional and statutory defects in an indictment are non-jurisdictional” and provided a lengthy dissent supporting this argument. Id. at 49. 

 

State v. Huss, 367 N.C. 162 (Nov. 8, 2013)

The court per curiam, with an equally divided court, affirmed the decision below, State v. Huss, 223 N.C. App. 480 (2012). That decision thus is left undisturbed but without precedential value. In this case, involving charges of second-degree sexual offense and second-degree rape, the court of appeals had held that the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The State proceeded on a theory that the victim was physically helpless. The facts showed that the defendant, a martial arts instructor, bound the victim’s hands behind her back and engaged in sexual activity with her. The statute defines the term physically helpless to mean a victim who either is unconscious or is physically unable to resist the sexual act. Here, the victim was not unconscious. Thus, the only issue was whether she was unable to resist the sexual act. The court of appeals began by rejecting the defendant’s argument that this category applies only to victims who suffer from some permanent physical disability or condition, instead concluding that factors other than physical disability could render a victim unable to resist the sexual act. However, it found that no such evidence existed in this case. The State had argued that the fact that the defendant was a skilled fighter and outweighed the victim supported the conclusion that the victim was physically helpless. The court of appeals rejected this argument, concluding that the relevant analysis focuses on “attributes unique and personal of the victim.” Similarly, the court of appeals rejected the State’s argument that the fact that the defendant pinned the victim in a submissive hold and tied her hands behind her back supported the conviction. It noted, however, that the evidence would have been sufficient under a theory of force. The defendant also was convicted of kidnapping the victim for the purpose of facilitating second-degree rape. The court of appeals reversed the kidnapping conviction on grounds that the State had proceeded under an improper theory of second-degree rape (the State proceeded on a theory that the victim was physically helpless when in fact force would have been the appropriate theory). The court of appeals concluded: “because the State proceeded under an improper theory of second-degree rape, we are unable to find that the State sufficiently proved the particular felonious intent alleged here.”

In this second-degree rape case, the trial court did not commit plain error by failing to instruct the jury that lack of consent was an element of rape of a physically helpless person. Because lack of consent is implied in law for this offense, the trial court was not required to instruct the jury that lack of consent was an essential element of the crime.

The evidence was sufficient to support a conviction of second-degree rape. On appeal the defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence showing that the victim was physically helpless. The State presented evidence that the victim consumed sizable portions of alcohol over an extended period of time, was physically ill in a club parking lot, and was unable to remember anything after leaving the club. When the victim returned to the defendant’s apartment, she stumbled up the stairs and had to hold onto the stair rail. She woke up the following morning with her skirt pulled up to her waist, her shirt off, and her underwear on the bed. Her vagina was sore and she had a blurry memory of pushing someone off of her. She had no prior sexual relationship with the defendant. Moreover, the defendant’s actions following the incident, including his adamant initial denial that anything of a sexual nature occurred and subsequent contradictory admissions, indicate that he knew of his wrongdoings, specifically that the victim was physically helpless. There was sufficient evidence that the victim was physically unable to resist intercourse or to communicate her unwillingness to submit to the intercourse.

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