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., 09/17/2021
E.g., 09/17/2021

The complex procedural history of this case, which involves motions for appropriate relief filed by three defendants under the Racial Justice Act and associated proceedings occurring over a years-long period of time when the RJA was amended and then repealed, is recounted in detail in the court’s opinion which vacates the trial court’s order ruling that the repeal of the RJA voided the defendant’s RJA MAR and remands the case for the reinstatement of the defendant’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole.  For the reasons stated in State v. Robinson, ___ N.C. ___, 846 S.E.2d 711 (2020), the retroactivity provision of the RJA repeal violates the double jeopardy protections of the North Carolina Constitution.  For the reasons stated in State v. Ramseur, 374 N.C. 658 (2020), the retroactive application of the RJA repeal violates the prohibitions against ex post facto laws contained in the United States Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution.

Justice Davis concurred in the result for the reasons stated in Justice Ervin’s concurring opinions in State v. Golphin, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sept. 25, 2020) and State v. Walters, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Sept. 25, 2020). 

Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinions in Robinson and Ramseur.

In a per curiam opinion, for the reasons stated in State v. Robinson, ___ N.C. ___, 846 S.E.2d 711 (2020) the court vacated the trial court’s order dismissing the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief filed pursuant to the Racial Justice Act and remanded the case for the reinstatement of the defendant’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole. 

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Davis, concurred in the result because he was bound by the decision in Robinson, a case in which he dissented.  Were he not bound by Robinson, Justice Ervin would have dissented for the reasons he stated in Robinson

Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinion in Robinson.

In a per curiam opinion, for the reasons stated in State v. Robinson, ___ N.C. ___, 846 S.E.2d 711 (2020) the court vacated the trial court’s order dismissing the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief filed pursuant to the Racial Justice Act and remanded the case for the reinstatement of the defendant’s sentence of life imprisonment without parole.

Justice Ervin, joined by Justice Davis, concurred in the result because he was bound by the decision in Robinson, a case in which he dissented.  Were he not bound by Robinson, Justice Ervin would have dissented for the reasons he stated in Robinson.

Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissenting opinions in Robinson and State v. Ramseur, 374 N.C. 658 (2020).

The defendant was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in 1994. The defendant filed a timely motion for appropriate relief pursuant to the RJA in 2010. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court resentenced the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Following resentencing of three other defendants under the RJA, the General Assembly repealed the RJA. The repeal stated that it was retroactive and voided all pending motions for appropriate relief but did not apply to a trial court order resentencing a defendant to life without parole if that order was affirmed on appellate review.

A joint hearing was thereafter held by a different trial judge on the motions for appropriate relief by the four defendants, to consider whether the defendant’s claims were rendered void by the RJA repeal. While the trial court found that the defendant’ss rights had not vested and that the RJA repeal was not an ex post facto law, the Supreme Court held that the trial court erred by failing to consider the defendant’s double jeopardy argument.

The Supreme Court held that the initial trial court’s order resentencing the defendant to life in prison was an acquittal for purposes of double jeopardy. The Court reasoned that once the trial court found that the defendant had proven all of the essential elements under the RJA to bar the imposition of the death penalty, he was acquitted of that capital sentence, jeopardy terminated, and any attempt by the State to reimpose the death penalty would be a violation of the state constitution. One justice, concurring, agreed with the three-member majority that the judgment and commitment order in which the defendant was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole was a final judgment, for which appellate review was neither sought nor obtained, and that double jeopardy barred further review.

Justice Newby, in dissent, argued that the majority opinion presented three grounds for its ruling, only one of which garnered four votes, resulting in the narrow holding that the State failed to appeal the amended judgment and commitment order so that order is final. Justice Ervin, in dissent, concluded that based on the Court’s holding in State v. Ramseur, 843 S.E.2d 106 (N.C. 2020), the case should be remanded to the trial court for a full hearing on the merits of the defendant’s RJA claim at a proceeding where the State has a further opportunity to respond.

The defendant was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder based on offenses committed in 2007. He was sentenced to death in 2010. That same year he filed a motion for appropriate relief under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (RJA), but the trial court did not rule on it until after the General Assembly amended the RJA in 2012 and then repealed it in 2013. The repeal was made retroactively applicable to all pending MARs filed before the effective date of the repeal. The trial court therefore determined that the repeal rendered the defendant’s MAR void and dismissed it. The trial court also ruled in the alternative that the defendant’s RJA claims were without merit and that no evidentiary hearing was necessary to resolve them.

The Supreme Court granted the defendant’s petition for writ of certiorari. (1) The Court agreed with the defendant that retroactive application of the RJA repeal violated the prohibitions against ex post facto laws in the state and federal constitutions. The Court reasoned that this was the type of ex post facto law that inflicts a greater punishment for an offense than the law applicable when it was committed. Though the RJA did not exist when the defendant committed his crimes, the effective date coverage of the original RJA—which did include the defendant’s offense date—made the RJA applicable to crimes committed at that time. The Court concluded that the legislature’s repeal of a prior, retroactively-applicable ameliorative law like the RJA violated ex post facto principles. The Court rejected the State’s argument that the RJA was a mere procedural overlay that did not substantively change the law governing the death penalty. Through the RJA, the 2009 General Assembly affirmatively sought to allow the review of statistical evidence that the Supreme Court had not allowed in McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), and to create a new claim for relief not otherwise available. The Court also acknowledged that the RJA repeal happened shortly after four defendants had obtained relief under the original Act, making relevant one of the policy purposes of the Ex Post Facto Clause: to restrain “arbitrary and potentially vindictive legislation.” Slip op. at 29.

(2) The Court next considered whether retroactive application of the 2012 RJA amendments to the defendant also violated the prohibition against ex post facto laws. The 2012 amendments made three significant changes to the law. And because the 2012 legislation included a severability clause, the Court analyzed each of them separately. The first change was to eliminate the mandatory requirement for an evidentiary hearing upon the filing of an RJA claim. The Court concluded that this was a procedural change that—despite working to the disadvantage of some defendants, including Mr. Ramseur—did not implicate the prohibition on ex post facto laws. The second change altered the evidentiary requirements for establishing racial discrimination in an RJA claim in several ways, including shrinking the relevant geographic region from the entire state to the specific county or prosecutorial district, limiting the relevant time for consideration, and mandating that statistical evidence alone is insufficient to establish a meritorious claim. The Court concluded that this second set of changes implemented a more stringent standard of proof for establishing discrimination that cannot permissibly apply retroactively. The third change added a waiver provision, saying that a defendant must waive any objection to imposition of a sentence of life without parole as a prerequisite for asserting an RJA claim. The Court declined to address the constitutionality of that change because it was not at issue in Mr. Ramseur’s case. In summary, the 2012 amendment eliminating the mandatory hearing requirement could permissibly apply to an RJA claim asserted before the amendments became law, but the other evidentiary changes could not. Therefore, the evidentiary rules of the original RJA must apply to pre-amendment filings like Mr. Ramseur’s.

Finally, the Court concluded that the trial court erred by concluding without an evidentiary hearing that the defendant’s RJA MARs were without merit. The defendant’s motions included extensive evidence, stated with particularity, tending to show race was a significant factor in imposition of death sentences within the meaning of the RJA. The Court said the motions also established that the defendant was entitled to discovery of State files under G.S. 15A-1415(f). The Court remanded the case for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion.

Justice Newby dissented, concluding primarily that the RJA amendments and repeal did not violate ex post facto principles because they left the defendant no worse off than he was when he committed his offense in 2007, before the RJA was enacted.

The defendant was sentenced to death for first-degree murder in 1993. He filed a first motion for appropriate relief in 1997, which was denied in 2011. He filed a new MAR under the North Carolina Racial Justice Act (the RJA MAR) in 2010, amending it twice after the General Assembly amended the RJA in 2012 and then repealed it in 2013. In 2014, the trial court dismissed the defendant’s amended RJA MAR as procedurally barred and, in the alternative, as being without merit. On appeal, the Supreme Court vacated the trial court’s orders and remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with the Court’s opinion in State v. Ramseur, ___ N.C. ___ (2020), summarized above. (1) The General Assembly’s 2013 repeal of the RJA was unconstitutional as applied to the defendant under the state and federal constitutions, and the 2012 amendment can only be applied insofar as it affects procedural aspects of his claim. (2) The Court held that the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s RJA MAR was procedurally barred, as the original version of the RJA included language, then codified in G.S. 15A-2012(b), allowing defendants to seek relief “[n]otwithstanding any other provision or time limitation” in the MAR article. (3) The Court also concluded that the trial court abused its discretion by dismissing the defendant’s claims without an evidentiary hearing in light of the evidence presented in his motion, including evidence that race was a factor in jury selection, sentencing, and capital charging decisions in the relevant jurisdictions; statistical evidence from Michigan State University College of Law; expert testimony and evidence from another RJA case; and evidence of race-based juror strikes in his own case. The Court remanded for proceedings not inconsistent with its opinion. Justice Newby dissented for the reasons stated in his dissent in Ramseur.

(1) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by denying his motion under the Racial Justice Act to prohibit the State from seeking the death penalty without holding an evidentiary hearing. Assuming arguendo that any version of the RJA applies to the defendant, the defendant failed to follow the provisions of that statute which mandate that the claim shall be raised by the defendant at the Rule 24 conference. Here, the defendant did not raise a RJA claim at the Rule 24 conference, despite being twice asked by the trial court whether he wanted to be heard. The court concluded: “Defendant cannot complain of the trial court’s failure to strictly adhere to the RJA’s pretrial statutory procedures where he himself failed to follow those procedures.” The court noted that its ruling was without prejudice to the defendant’s ability to raise an RJA claim in post-conviction proceedings.

(2) The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to intervene ex mero motu during the State’s closing argument during the sentencing phase of the trial. On appeal the defendant pointed to two statements made by prosecutors during the State’s closing arguments which refer to the defendant’s decision not to present mitigating evidence or closing statements. The court found no gross impropriety in the prosecutor’s remarks, noting in part that it is not impermissible for prosecutors to comment on the defendant’s lack of mitigating evidence.

(3) The court found that the defendant’s sentencing survived proportionality review, noting in part that the defendant kidnapped a five-year-old child from her home and sexually assaulted her before strangling her and discarding her body under a log in a remote area used for field dressing deer carcasses.

In this capital case, before the supreme court on certiorari from an order of the trial court granting the defendant relief on his Racial Justice Act (RJA) motion for appropriate relief (MAR), the court vacated and remanded to the trial court. The supreme court determined that the trial court abused its discretion by denying the State’s motion to continue, made after receiving the final version of the defendant’s statistical study supporting his MAR approximately one month before the hearing on the motion began. The court reasoned:

The breadth of respondent’s study placed petitioner in the position of defending the peremptory challenges that the State of North Carolina had exercised in capital prosecutions over a twenty-year period. Petitioner had very limited time, however, between the delivery of respondent’s study and the hearing date. Continuing this matter to give petitioner more time would have done no harm to respondent, whose remedy under the Act was a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

It concluded: “Without adequate time to gather evidence and address respondent’s study, petitioner did not have a full and fair opportunity to defend this proceeding.” The court continued:

On remand, the trial court should address petitioner’s constitutional and statutory challenges pertaining to the Act. In any new hearing on the merits, the trial court may, in the interest of justice, consider additional statistical studies presented by the parties. The trial court may also, in its discretion, appoint an expert under N.C. R. Evid. 706 to conduct a quantitative and qualitative study, unless such a study has already been commissioned pursuant to this Court’s Order in State v. Augustine, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (2015) (139PA13), in which case the trial court may consider that study. If the trial court appoints an expert under Rule 706, the Court hereby orders the Administrative Office of the Courts to make funds available for that purpose.

In this second RJA case the supreme court held that “the error recognized in this Court’s Order in [Robinson (summarized immediately above)], infected the trial court’s decision, including its use of issue preclusion, in these cases.” The court vacated the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s RJA MAR and remanded with parallel instructions. It also concluded that the trial court erred when it joined the three cases for an evidentiary hearing. 

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