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., 07/20/2024
E.g., 07/20/2024

In a per curiam opinion in this capital case, the Court held that the defendant has shown he is a person with intellectual disability. In 2015 a Texas appellate court held that the defendant did not have an intellectual disability and consequently was eligible for the death penalty. The Court considered the lawfulness of that determination, vacated the court’s decision, and remanded the case for further consideration. The Texas court subsequently reconsidered the matter but reached the same conclusion, holding that the defendant had not demonstrated intellectual disability. The defendant filed a petition for certiorari, arguing that the trial court record demonstrates his intellectual disability. The prosecutor agreed with the defendant that he is intellectually disabled and cannot be executed; the Attorney General of Texas however asked the Court to deny the defendant’s petition. Considering the merits, the Court agreed with the defendant that the Texas appellate court’s determination was inconsistent with its prior opinion in the case. The Court noted: “We have found in its opinion too many instances in which, with small variations, it repeats the analysis we previously found wanting, and these same parts are critical to its ultimate conclusion.” For one thing, it explained, the Texas appellate court again relied less on the adaptive deficits to which the trial court had referred than upon the defendant’s apparent adaptive strengths. The Court also found that the Texas appellate court relied too heavily upon adaptive improvements made in prison. Furthermore, the Texas court concluded that the defendant failed to show that the cause of his deficient social behavior was related to any deficits in general mental abilities rather than emotional problems. The Court noted, in part, that in its last review, it said that the Court of Appeals had departed from clinical practice when it required the defendant to prove that his problems in kindergarten stemmed from intellectual disability rather than emotional problems. Additionally, despite the appellate court’s statement that it would abandon reliance on certain evidentiary factors, it seems to have used many of those factors in reaching its conclusion. The Court concluded:

[T]he appeals court’s opinion, when taken as a whole and when read in the light both of our prior opinion and the trial court record, rests upon analysis too much of which too closely resembles what we previously found improper. And extricating that analysis from the opinion leaves too little that might warrant reaching a different conclusion than did the trial court. We consequently agree with Moore and the prosecutor that, on the basis of the trial court record, Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability.

Vacating and remanding in this capital case, the Court held that a Texas court was wrong to fault a lower court for using a current definition of intellectual disability and by focusing on superseded standards and non-clinical factors for determining intellectual disability. Consulting current medical diagnostic standards, a state habeas court found in 2014 that the defendant was intellectually disabled and recommended relief. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) rejected this recommendation and denied the defendant relief. It reasoned that the habeas court erred by using the most current standards regarding the diagnosis of intellectual disability rather than the test set out in Ex parte Briseno, 135 S. W. 3d 1 (Tex. Crim. App. 2004) which incorporated older medical standards and set forth “seven evidentiary factors,” later described by the Supreme Court as being unsupported by any authority, medical or judicial. The CCA determined that the Briseno standards “remai[n] adequately ‘informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework.’” Applying them, that court found that relief was not warranted. One judge dissented, arguing that Atkins and Hall require courts to consult current medical standards to determine intellectual disability and criticizing the majority for relying on manuals superseded in the medical community. The dissenting judge also questioned the legitimacy of the seven Briseno factors, noting that they deviate from the current medical consensus. Before the Supreme Court the issue was whether the Texas court’s “adherence to superseded medical standards and its reliance on Briseno comply with the Eighth Amendment and this Court’s precedents.” The Court held that it did not. It noted that although its decisions in Atkins and Hall left to the States the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the restriction on executing intellectually disabled individuals, that determination must be informed by the medical community’s diagnostic framework. Here, the habeas court applied current medical standards in concluding that the defendant is intellectually disabled and therefore not eligible for the death penalty. The CCA, however, faulted the habeas court for disregarding the CCA’s case law and using a current definition of intellectual disability. The CCA instead “fastened its intellectual-disability determination” on a 1992 American Association on Mental Retardation manual definition adopted in Briseno. “By rejecting the habeas court’s application of medical guidance and clinging to the standard it laid out in Briseno, including the wholly nonclinical Briseno factors, the CCA failed adequately to inform itself of the medical community’s diagnostic framework.” (quotation omitted).

Because the Louisiana state court’s decision rejecting the defendant’s Atkins claim without affording him an evidentiary hearing was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts, the defendant was entitled to have his claim considered on the merits in federal court. After the defendant was convicted, the U.S. Supreme Court held, in Atkins, that “in light of . . . ‘evolving standards of decency,’” the Eighth Amendment “‘places a substantive restriction on the State’s power to take the life’ of a mentally retarded offender.” The Court however left “to the State[s] the task of developing appropriate ways to enforce the constitutional restriction upon [their] execution of sentences.” The Louisiana Supreme Court later held that “a diagnosis of mental retardation has three distinct components: (1) subaverage intelligence, as measured by objective standardized IQ tests; (2) significant impairment in several areas of adaptive skills; and (3) manifestations of this neuro-psychological disorder in the developmental stage.” That court further held that an Atkins evidentiary hearing is required when an inmate has put forward sufficient evidence to raise a “reasonable ground” to believe him to be intellectually disabled. In a post-conviction motion in the case at bar, the defendant sought an Atkins hearing. Without holding an evidentiary hearing or granting funds to conduct additional investigation, the state trial court dismissed the defendant’s petition. After losing in state court, the defendant pursued federal habeas relief. The defendant won at the federal district court but the Fifth Circuit reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court granted review and held that the state court’s decision denying his Atkins claim was premised on an “unreasonable determination of the facts.” In reaching this decision, the Court focused on the two underlying factual determinations on which the trial court’s decision was premised: that the defendant’s IQ score of 75 was inconsistent with a diagnosis of intellectual disability and that he had presented no evidence of adaptive impairment. The Court held that both of the state court’s critical factual determinations were unreasonable.

The Court held unconstitutional a Florida law strictly defining intellectual disability for purposes of qualification for the death penalty. The Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments forbid the execution of persons with intellectual disability. Florida law defines intellectual disability to require an IQ test score of 70 or less. If, from test scores, a prisoner is deemed to have an IQ above 70, all further exploration of intellectual disability is foreclosed. The Court held: “This rigid rule . . . creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus is unconstitutional.” Slip Op. at 1. The Court concluded:

             Florida seeks to execute a man because he scored a 71 instead of 70 on an IQ test. Florida is one of just a few States to have this rigid rule. Florida’s rule misconstrues the Court’s statements in Atkins that intellectually disability is characterized by an IQ of “approximately 70.” 536 U. S., at 308, n. 3. Florida’s rule is in direct opposition to the views of those who design, administer, and interpret the IQ test. By failing to take into account the standard error of measurement, Florida’s law not only contradicts the test’s own design but also bars an essential part of a sentencing court’s inquiry into adaptive functioning. [Defendant] Freddie Lee Hall may or may not be intellectually disabled, but the law requires that he have the opportunity to present evidence of his intellectual disability, including deficits in adaptive functioning over his lifetime.

             The death penalty is the gravest sentence our society may impose. Persons facing that most severe sanction must have a fair opportunity to show that the Constitution prohibits their execution. Florida’s law contravenes our Nation’s commitment to dignity and its duty to teach human decency as the mark of a civilized world. The States are laboratories for experimentation, but those experiments may not deny the basic dignity the Constitution protects.

Slip Op. at 22.

(1) In this capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court deprived him of his state and federal constitutional right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury by prohibiting defense counsel from questioning prospective jurors concerning their ability to follow the applicable law prohibiting the imposition of the death penalty upon an intellectually disabled person. Defense counsel informed the trial court that they wanted to ask the jurors whether they can follow the law with regard to mental retardation and that in order to make an adequate inquiry, defense counsel would need to tell the jurors about the relevant law. The trial judge determined that the defense would be limited to inquiring into the jurors’ ability to follow the applicable law. When the jurors returned to the courtroom, defense counsel told the jurors that mental retardation is a defense to the death penalty and that it is defined, among other things, as having a low IQ. Both defense counsel and the prosecutor asked prospective jurors numerous questions related to intellectual disability issues. Although the trial court told defense counsel to limit their questioning with respect to intellectual disability issues to inquiry as to whether members of the jury could follow the law as given to them by the court, the defendant was allowed, without objection, to explain to two different jury panels, at a time when all prospective jurors were present, that mental retardation is a defense to the death penalty. Additionally, defense counsel asked prospective jurors about their experiences with intellectually disabled persons, the extent of their familiarity with intelligence testing and adaptive skills functioning issues, their willingness to consider expert mental health testimony, and their willingness to follow the applicable law as given in the trial court’s instructions. When considered in conjunction with the fact that defense counsel was allowed to tell jurors that mental retardation was a defense, the questions defense counsel were allowed to pose sufficiently permitted counsel to determine whether jurors could fairly consider and follow the trial court’s instruction concerning whether the defendant should be exempted from the imposition of the death penalty on the basis of any intellectual disabilities. The limitations that the trial court put on defense counsel’s questioning of prospective jurors concerning intellectual disability issues was not an abuse of discretion and did not render the trial fundamentally unfair.

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that he demonstrated that he suffers from an intellectual disability by a preponderance of the evidence and that the trial court erred by denying his motion to set aside the jury’s verdict in the State’s favor with respect to this issue. Although the defendant did present sufficient evidence to support a determination that he should be deemed exempt from the imposition of the death penalty on intellectual disability grounds, the State presented expert testimony tending to support a contrary determination. The relative credibility of the testimony offered by the various experts concerning the nature and extent of the defendant’s intellectual limitations was a matter for the jury. Because the record reveals a conflict in the evidence concerning the extent to which the defendant was intellectually disabled, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by failing to set aside the jury’s verdict.

(3) The trial court committed reversible error at the defendant’s capital sentencing proceeding by failing to instruct the jury with respect to the statutory mitigating factor in G.S. 15A-2000(f)(6), which addresses the extent to which a defendant’s capacity to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the law was impaired. The trial judge is required to instruct the jury to consider any mitigating circumstances which have adequate evidentiary support and the trial court has no discretion in determining whether to submit a mitigating circumstance when substantial evidence in support of it has been presented. Citing evidence in the record, the court held that it contains ample support for the submission of the mitigating circumstance at issue. The court went on to find that the trial court’s error was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court ordered a new capital sentencing hearing

State v. Ward, 364 N.C. 157 (June 17, 2010)

The trial judge has discretion regarding whether to submit the special issue of mental retardation to the jury in a bifurcated or unitary capital sentencing proceeding. The court held that in the case before it, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying a defense motion to bifurcate the issues of mental retardation and sentence.

State v. Locklear, 363 N.C. 438 (Aug. 28, 2009)

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s request to instruct the jury that a verdict finding the defendant mentally retarded would result in a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. The trial judge had given N.C.P.J.I.—Crim. 150.05, which states, in part, that “no defendant who is mentally retarded shall be sentenced to death,” and the attorneys argued that if the defendant was found mentally retarded he would receive life in prison. Stating that on remand, the trial court should instruct the jury that “[i]f the jury determines the defendant to be mentally retarded, the court shall declare the case noncapital and the defendant shall be sentenced to life imprisonment.”

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