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., 06/21/2024
E.g., 06/21/2024

In this Cumberland County case, defendant appealed his convictions for first-degree murder, robbery with a dangerous weapon, and intimidating a witness, arguing error in (1) denying a jury request to review the trial transcript, (2) joining the witness intimidation charge with his other two offenses, and (3) admitting cell phone and geo-tracking data evidence without proper authentication. The Court of Appeals found no error.  

In August of 2019, defendant was indicted for murdering the victim while robbing her of marijuana. Prior to trial, defendant and an accomplice were being transported while in custody, and defendant punched the accomplice in the jaw. When asked why he punched the accomplice, defendant said the other man was “trying to testify on me and give me life in prison.” Slip Op. at 2. This led the State to issue a superseding indictment combining the murder and robbery charges with the witness intimidation charge, and the trial court granted a motion to combine the charges over defendant’s objection. While the jury was deliberating, they requested to review transcripts of testimony, a request that the trial court denied. Defendant was subsequently convicted of all three charges, and appealed. 

In (1), defendant argued that the trial court did not have the necessary knowledge about what circumstances prompted the jury’s request before denying it. The Court of Appeals disagreed, explaining that defendant supplied no case law to support this argument. Instead, the request was governed by G.S. 15A-1233(a), and the trial court satisfied the statutory requirements by bringing the jury to the courtroom and explaining the reasoning for denying the request. 

Moving to (2), defendant argued that the witness intimidation charge “not transactionally related to the robbery or murder charges.” Id. at 6. Again, the court disagreed, applying the four factors from State v. Montford, 137 N.C. App. 495 (2000), and concluding “the charges were transactionally related as the intimidating a witness charge is predicated on Defendant’s beliefs about his robbery and murder trial.” Slip Op. at 8. The court also dispensed with defendant’s argument that the intimidation charge caused the jury to presume his guilt, explaining “the evidence of Defendant’s intimidation of [the witness] would have been admissible in the murder and robbery trial even if the charges had been separately tried.” Id. at 9.  

Arriving at (3), the court noted defendant did not object at trial, so the review of admitting the alleged hearsay evidence was under the plain error standard. Due to the ample evidence that defendant was at the scene and fired the weapon that killed the victim, the court concluded it was not plain error to admit the cell phone and geo-tracking evidence.

In this Buncombe County case, defendant appealed his convictions for second-degree forcible sexual offense, intimidating or interfering with a witness, and habitual felon status, arguing (1) the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the interfering with a witness charge, (2) error in denying his motion to dismiss the interfering charge due to insufficient evidence, and (3) error in the jury instruction related to the interfering charge. The Court of Appeals found the trial court did have sufficient jurisdiction and committed no error.

The charges against defendant arose from a 2019 incident where he forced himself upon a woman after a night of drinking and smoking marijuana. While defendant was in the Buncombe County Jail prior to trial, he made a call to the victim using a fake name. When the victim answered, defendant told her “[i]f you’re still in Asheville, I’m gonna try and send you some money,” and “I got $1,000 for ya.” Slip Op. at 4-5. The victim informed law enforcement of the call, leading to the additional charge of intimidating or interfering with a witness. At trial, the victim testified about the phone call and the recording was published to the jury. Defense counsel’s motions to dismiss the charges were denied by the trial court. 

The Court of Appeals first explained the basis of defendant’s argument (1), that the trial court lacked jurisdiction because the alleged conduct from the indictment, bribing the witness/victim not to testify, was not criminalized by G.S. 14-226. Defendant argued that bribery was not an act to intimidate the witness under the language of the statute, and that only threatening or menacing a witness represented a violation of the statute. The court rejected this interpretation, explaining that G.S. 14-226 “prohibits intimidation of witnesses or attempts to deter or interfere with their testimony ‘by threats, menaces or in any other manner,’” and that this language “given its plain and ordinary meaning, straightforwardly expands the scope of prohibited conduct beyond ‘threats’ and ‘menaces’ to include any other act that intimidates a witness or attempts to deter or interfere with their testimony.” Id. at 9-10. 

The court likewise rejected (2), defendant’s motion to dismiss argument. Here the court explained that direct evidence was not required to prove intent, and that circumstantial evidence was sufficient to support a finding that defendant intended to dissuade the witness from testifying. The court held that “the circumstantial evidence that the State did introduce in this case supports a reasonable inference that [defendant] acted with just that intent given the context in which he made the offer.” Id. at 13. 

Taking up (3), defendant’s objections to the jury instructions, the court explained that defendant objected to four elements of the instructions. First, defendant objected that the instruction did not require the jury to find that defendant threatened the witness/victim; the court explained this was precluded by its holding discuss above on bribery in G.S. 14-226. Second, defendant argued that the instruction did not convey the required intent to the jury; the court rejected this argument as the instruction was based on a pattern jury instruction previously held to be consistent with the statute. Third, defendant argued that the structure of the instruction allowed the jury to convict him for simply offering the witness/victim $1,000, which is not illegal conduct; again the court pointed to the context and circumstances around the conduct and bribery to dissuade the testimony. 

Defendant’s final argument regarding the jury instruction was that the disjunctive structure of the instruction allowed a jury verdict that was not unanimous, as he asserted that various jury members may have found him guilty under separate parts of the instruction. The court explained that some disjunctive instructions are unconstitutional, particularly where a jury can choose from one of two underlying acts to find a defendant guilty of a crime such as in State v. Lyons, 330 N.C. 298 (1991). Slip Op. at 18. However, the crime of intimidating or interfering with a witness does not consist of a list of specific criminal acts, and the court pointed to the example of State v. Hartness, 326 N.C. 561 (1990), where indecent liberties was identified as a similar statute where any of several disjunctive acts can constitute the elements of the offense for purposes of a jury’s guilty verdict. Slip Op. at 19. As there was no danger of jurors convicting defendant of separate offenses under G.S. 14-226, the court found no issue with the disjunctive nature of the jury instruction in the current case. The court further noted that the evidence and verdict rested solely on the attempt to bribe the witness/victim, and did not provide other possible behaviors that could create ambiguity. 

In an interfering with a witness case, the trial court properly instructed the jury that the first element of the offense was that “a person was summoned as a witness in a court of this state. You are instructed that it is immaterial that the victim was regularly summoned or legally bound to attend.” The second sentence properly informed the jury that the victim need only be a “prospective witness” for this element to be satisfied.

Over a dissent, the court extended G.S. 14-226(a) (intimidating witnesses) to apply to a person who was merely a prospective witness. The local DSS filed a juvenile petition against the defendant and obtained custody of his daughter. As part of that case, the defendant was referred to the victim for counseling. The defendant appeared at the victim’s office, upset about a letter she had written to DSS about his treatment. The defendant grabbed the victim’s forearm to stop her and stated, in a loud and aggravated tone, that he needed to speak with her. The defendant asked the victim to write a new letter stating that he did not require the recommended treatment; when the victim declined to do so, the defendant “became very loud.” The victim testified, among other things, that every time she wrote a letter to DSS, she was “opening [her]self up to have to testify” in court. The court found the evidence sufficient to establish that the victim was a prospective witness and thus covered by the statute.

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