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

In this Mitchell County case, defendant appealed his conviction for felony child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury, arguing (1) error in denying his motion to dismiss, (2) plain error in failing to instruct the jury on the defense of accident, and (3) error in denying his requested jury instructions on lesser-included offenses. The Court of Appeals found no error or plain error.  

In October of 2019, defendant brought his daughter to the emergency room with a head injury. During an interview with DSS at the hospital, defendant said the injury occurred when he tripped carrying his daughter and her head hit the bar on a Pack’n Play. Expert testimony disputed defendant’s version of the events, as the child “had significantly more and significantly more severe injuries than would be expected from a short fall, from falling from the father’s arms into a Pack ’N Play, or even onto the floor.” Slip Op. at 6. The child suffered permanent brain damage and loss of mobility on the left side of her body. 

The Court of Appeals considered (1), defendant’s argument that the State presented insufficient evidence of his intent to inflict the child’s injuries. The court pointed out that intent is normally proven by circumstantial evidence. Here, the medical reports reflected significant injuries to the child’s brain, and expert testimony found those injuries “were consistent with physical abuse.” Id. at 10. These represented substantial evidence that defendant “intentionally inflicted serious bodily injury to [the child,]” justifying the denial of defendant’s motion. Id.

Moving to (2), the court noted that defendant did not object to the jury instructions, meaning the review was for plain error. Assuming arguendo that it was error that the jury was not instructed on the defense of accident, the court could not find prejudice, as the elements of felony child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury required the jury to find defendant intentionally injured the child. The court explained that the jury heard testimony from defendant that the events were an accident, and from the State’s expert that the injuries were indicative of child abuse. After hearing the two competing explanations, “[t]he jury thus found beyond a reasonable doubt that Defendant’s testimony was not credible by finding him guilty of felony child abuse inflicting serious bodily injury.” Id. at 14. Providing an instruction on the defense of accident would not have impacted the outcome. 

Finally, in (3), the court explained that instruction on lesser-included offenses is not required “’when the State’s evidence is positive as to each and every element of the crime charged and there is no conflicting evidence relating to any element of the charged crime.’” Id. at 15, quoting State v. Millsaps, 356 N.C. 556, 562 (2002). Here, the distinguishing element between the charge and lesser offenses was “the level of harm inflicted upon the child.” Id. The court concluded that “[h]ere, there was no evidence presented at trial from which the jury could have rationally found that Defendant committed the lesser offense[s] . . . because the State’s evidence is positive as to the element of serious bodily injury and there is no conflicting evidence.” Id. at 16. 

In this second-degree murder case where the defendant’s girlfriend was fatally shot in the eye with a pistol, the trial court did not err by omitting a jury instruction on the defense of accident or by sentencing the defendant as a Class B1 felon.  The trial court did not err by omitting an instruction on the defense of accident because the defendant testified that he did not commit the shooting or witness it and that he was unsure how it happened.  The defendant’s testimony “flatly contradicted” the evidence suggesting he was involved in an arguably accidental shooting.  The Court explained that the defendant could not “simultaneously deny that he committed the shooting and claim that he accidentally committed the shooting.” 

As to the sentencing issue, while a general verdict of guilty for second-degree murder is ambiguous for sentencing purposes where there is evidence supporting either a Class B2 offense based on depraved-heart malice or a Class B1 offense based on another malice theory, the court concluded that there was no evidence in support of depraved-heart malice in this case.  Neither the defendant’s testimony, which asserted that he left the unloaded pistol unattended, or other testimony suggesting that the victim grabbed the pistol as the defendant held it while arguing with her, was sufficient to show that the defendant committed an inherently dangerous act in a manner indicating a depraved heart.  The trial court therefore did not err by sentencing the defendant as a Class B1 felon and also did not err by omitting an instruction to the jury on the definition of depraved-heart malice.

A code enforcement officer (“Wayman”), accompanied by police officers, was at a property owned by the defendant to execute an administrative warrant for the removal of nuisance building materials. While they were standing on the street in front of the property, the defendant drove up in his car and the passenger side mirror struck Wayman in the hip. The police officers shouted at the defendant to stop his car and get out. The defendant stopped his car, but as Wayman walked by in front of the vehicle, the car moved forward again and stuck Wayman in the knee. The officers repeatedly demanded that the defendant exit his car, and after he complied the defendant stated that Wayman “wanted to be hit.” The defendant was arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon. After being convicted in district court, the defendant appealed for trial de novo in superior court, and the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of simple assault.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trail court erred by denying his motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence regarding the defendants’ intent. The appellate court disagreed, and found there was circumstantial evidence of intent based on the witness testimony and officers’ body-cam video. The defendant swerved towards Wayman with his car, and when he exited the car he was visibly upset with Wayman, which would allow a reasonable person to believe that the defendant intended to hit Wayman or at least to put him in fear of immediate bodily harm. But the trial court erred by not instructing the jury on the defense of accident. The defendant testified that it was a chaotic scene, he was only trying to “squeeze by” Wayman and park his car, and he did not hit anyone on purpose. That constituted sufficient evidence from which the jury could have concluded the defendant’s action was unintentional, lawful, and not done with reckless disregard for the safety of others, so it was reversible error to deny the defendant’s request for an instruction on the defense of accident.

In a case involving attempted murder and other charges, the defendant was not entitled to a jury instruction on the defense of accident. The defendant testified that his gun discharged accidentally during the fight with the victim. The evidence, however, even considered in the light most favorable to the defendant, shows the defendant was engaged in wrongdoing when he shot the victim. The defendant admitted that he physically assaulted the victim and had his hand on the trigger of his gun when it discharged. By his own admission, he was engaged in wrongful conduct when he shot the victim. He thus was not entitled to a jury instruction on the defense of accident.

In a child sexual assault case, the trial court did not err by failing to instruct the jury on the defense of accident as requested by the defendant. The defendant, who assisted high school sports teams, was charged with sexual offense and indecent liberties with students in connection with stretching and massages he provided to injured student athletes. The trial court properly denied the defendant’s request for the instruction “given the complete absence of any evidence tending to show that he digitally penetrated [the victim’s] vagina with his fingers in an accidental manner.” The court noted that at trial the defendant denied doing the acts in question.

The trial court did not err by failing to instruct on accident. The defense is unavailable when the defendant was engaged in misconduct at the time of the killing. Here, the defendant was engaged in misconduct—he broke into a home with the intent to commit robbery and the killing occurred during a struggle over the defendant’s gun. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that because he abandoned his plan to commit the robbery, his right to the defense of accident was “restored.” Even assuming that the defendant abandoned his plan, that fact would not break the sequence of events giving rise to the shooting.

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