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., 06/17/2024
E.g., 06/17/2024

In this case concerning the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause, Damian McElrath petitioned for relief after the Supreme Court of Georgia held its state’s repugnancy doctrine allowed the retrial of McElrath for malice murder after the jury returned a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity, but found McElrath guilty of related charges. In an opinion authored by Justice Jackson, the Court unanimously rejected Georgia’s interpretation and held that McElrath could not be tried for malice murder a second time because the jury’s verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity represented an acquittal. 

In 2012, McElrath stabbed his adopted mother to death, suspecting that she was poisoning his food. McElrath had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age, and a few weeks before the killing he began exhibiting delusions, resulting in his commitment to a mental health facility where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. One week after his discharge from the mental health facility, McElrath killed his mother, then called 911 to report the killing, informing law enforcement that he killed her because she was poisoning his food. 

Georgia brought three charges against McElrath: malice murder (effectively first-degree murder), felony murder, and aggravated assault. At trial, McElrath asserted an insanity defense. Georgia law allowed for two special verdicts in this situation, “not guilty by reason of insanity” and “guilty but mentally ill.” The jury in this case returned a split verdict, finding McElrath not guilty by reason of insanity for the malice murder charge, and guilty but mentally ill for the felony murder and aggravated assault charges (these charges merged as the assault was the predicate felony). The trial court sentenced McElrath to life imprisonment and he appealed, arguing that the two verdicts were “repugnant” (meaning the jury’s findings “are not legally and logically possible of existing simultaneously”) under Georgia law and, thus, the felony murder/aggravated assault verdict should be vacated. Slip op. at 4. 

The Supreme Court of Georgia agreed that the verdicts were repugnant, but contrary to McElrath’s request, the court vacated both the malice murder and felony murder/aggravated assault verdicts, remanding for a new trial. McElrath appealed a second time, arguing the Double Jeopardy Clause prevented retrying him for malice murder when he was acquitted by the jury. The Georgia Court disagreed, holding that because the two verdicts were repugnant, neither held value, and the not guilty by reason of insanity verdict did not operate as a normal acquittal. This holding led to McElrath’s petition and the current opinion. 

Taking up the Double Jeopardy Clause argument, Justice Jackson first noted the long line of decisions establishing that “[o]nce rendered, a jury’s verdict of acquittal is inviolate.” Id. at 6. Importantly, the specific reasoning of the jury is not relevant, as “[w]hatever the basis, the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second-guessing the reason for a jury’s acquittal.” Id. Here, Georgia argued that the repugnancy of the verdicts meant they were both null, changing the normal calculus for an acquittal. The Court rejected this argument, explaining that “whether an acquittal has occurred for purposes of the Double Jeopardy Clause is a question of federal, not state, law[,]” and state law cannot change the fundamental considerations as to what constitutes an acquittal. Id. at 8. Under the Court’s standard, “an acquittal has occurred if the factfinder ‘acted on its view that the prosecution had failed to prove its case.’” Id. (quoting Evans v. Michigan, 568 U. S. 313, 322 (2013)). 

Justice Jackson emphasized that even though the “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict “was accompanied by other verdicts that appeared to rest on inconsistent findings[,]” this did not impact the Court’s conclusion, as “the Double Jeopardy Clause prohibits second guessing an acquittal for any reason.” Id. at 9. Georgia argued that due to the special nature of the verdicts regarding McElrath’s mental state, the normal rules of scrutinizing an acquittal did not apply. Justice Jackson explained that this did not matter, as precedent prohibited speculating as to a jury’s motivations or reasoning even when there are “specific jury findings that provide a factual basis for such speculation,” concluding “[w]e simply cannot know why the jury in McElrath’s case acted as it did, and the Double Jeopardy Clause forbids us to guess.” Id. at 12. 

Justice Alito joined the unanimous opinion but also wrote a one-page concurrence to clarify that “the situation here is different from one in which a trial judge refuses to accept inconsistent verdicts and thus sends the jury back to deliberate further.” Id. (Alito, J., concurring). This echoed Justice Jackson’s clarification in footnote 4 of the main opinion. 

 

The defendant was convicted of and sentenced to death for killing his wife, who had filed for divorce, his two teenage daughters, and his wife’s grandmother, with whom the victims were staying. Before trial, the defendant filed a motion arguing that Kansas’ law on insanity violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Before statutory changes enacted in 1995, Kansas followed the M’Naghten test for insanity. Under that test, a defendant is not guilty by reason of insanity if either (1) he did not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing or (2) if he did know, he did not know his act was wrong. In 1995, Kansas legislatively abolished the M’Naghten insanity defense and adopted a mens rea defense. The pertinent statute provides that it is a defense to prosecution that the defendant, as a result of mental disease or defect, lacked the culpable mental state required as an element of the offense charged. The statute provides further that a mental disease or defect is not otherwise a defense. The Kansas courts rejected the defendant’s due process challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed.

The six-member majority began by observing that the M’Naghten insanity formulation consists of two tests: a cognitive incapacity test (the defendant did not know the nature and quality of his act); and a moral incapacity test (the defendant did not know his act was wrong). The Kansas’ mens rea defense, according to the Court, retains the cognitive incapacity test for insanity and jettisons the moral incapacity test. For a state rule on criminal liability to violate the Due Process Clause, it must offend “some principle of justice so rooted in the traditions and conscience of our people as to be ranked as fundamental.” Slip Op. at 14. The Court held that the moral capacity test is not such a principle and that the Due Process Clause does not compel states to adopt an insanity defense that turns on a defendant’s ability to know his act was wrong. The Court also noted that Kansas law allows a defendant to present mental health evidence at sentencing and that a judge may replace a defendant’s prison term with commitment to a mental health facility.

The three dissenting justices argued that Kansas had eliminated the core of the insanity defense by disallowing the defense for a defendant, who by reason of mental illness, “lacked the mental capacity necessary for his conduct to be considered morally blameworthy.” Dissenting Op. at 1. The dissent gave two examples to illustrate its view.

In Prosecution One, the accused person has shot and killed another person. The evidence at trial proves that, as a result of severe mental illness, he thought the victim was a dog. Prosecution Two is similar but for one thing: The evidence at trial proves that, as a result of severe mental illness, the defendant thought that a dog ordered him to kill the victim. Under the insanity defense as traditionally understood, the government cannot convict either defendant. Id. at 1–2.

 Under Kansas’ law, the defendant in Prosecution One could defend against the charge by showing that his mental illness prevented him from forming the mens rea for murder (intentional killing of a human being). The defendant in Prosecution Two has no defense under Kansas law because he acted with the necessary level of intent. The dissent observed that mental illness typically does not deprive individuals of the ability to form intent; rather, it affects their motivations for acting. As a result, Kansas’ approach requires conviction of a broad swath of defendants who would be adjudged not guilty under any traditional formulation of the insanity defense. In the dissent’s view, this result “offends deeply entrenched and widely recognized moral principles underpinning our criminal laws.” Id. at 21. The dissent rejected the idea that consideration of mental capacity at sentencing satisfies due process, finding that an insane defendant should not be found guilty in the first place.

In a case where the trial court made a pretrial determination of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI), the defendant’s constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel was violated when the trial court allowed defense counsel to pursue a pretrial insanity defense against her wishes. Against the defendant’s express wishes, counsel moved for a pretrial determination of NGRI pursuant to G.S. 15A-959. The State consented and the trial court agreed, purportedly dismissing the charges based on its determination that the defendant was NGRI. The court noted that the issue whether a competent defendant has a right to refuse to pursue a defense of NGRI is a question of first impression in North Carolina. It determined:

By ignoring Defendant’s clearly stated desire to proceed to trial rather than moving for a pretrial verdict of NGRI pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 15A-959(c), the trial court allowed — absent Defendant’s consent and over her express objection — the “waiver” of her fundamental rights, including the right to decide “what plea to enter, whether to waive a jury trial and whether to testify in [her] own defense[,]” as well as “the right to a fair trial as provided by the Sixth Amendment[,] . . . the right to hold the government to proof beyond a reasonable doubt[,] . . . [and] the right of confrontation[.]” These rights may not be denied a competent defendant, even when the defendant’s choice to exercise them may not be in the defendant’s best interests. In the present case, Defendant had the same right to direct her counsel in fundamental matters, such as what plea to enter, as she had to forego counsel altogether and represent herself, even when Defendant’s choices were made against her counsel’s best judgment. (citations omitted)

It went on to hold:

[B]ecause the decision of whether to plead not guilty by reason of insanity is part of the decision of “what plea to enter,” the right to make that decision “is a substantial right belonging to the defendant.” Therefore, by allowing Defendant’s counsel to seek and accept a pretrial disposition of NGRI, the trial court “deprived [Defendant] of [her] constitutional right to conduct [her] own defense.” We are not called upon to determine how that right should be protected when asserted by a defendant’s counsel at trial but, at a minimum, a defendant’s affirmative declaration that the defendant does not wish to move for a pretrial determination of NGRI must be respected. (quotation and footnote omitted).

The court went on to reject the State’s argument that the defendant could not show prejudice because she was subject to periodic hearings pertaining to her commitment. 

No plain error occurred when the trial judge instructed the jury on insanity using N.C.P.I.—Crim. 304.10. The defendant had argued that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury that the insanity defense applies if a defendant believed, due to mental illness, that his conduct was morally right. 

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