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., 06/26/2024
E.g., 06/26/2024

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court affirmed an unpublished Court of Appeals opinion denying defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) based upon ineffective assistance of his trial and appellate counsel. The Court’s opinion reversed the holding in State v. Allen, 378 N.C. 286 (2021), that the factual allegations in a MAR must be reviewed in the light most favorable to the defendant. 

Defendant was convicted of first-degree murder in 1999 and sentenced to life without parole. Defendant appealed his conviction, but the Court of Appeals found no error. In April of 2020, defendant filed the MAR giving rise to the current case, arguing ineffective assistance of counsel from both trial counsel and appellate counsel. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the MAR but did not state that the standard of review was in the light most favorable to defendant as called for by Allen

After noting that Allen had created confusion for the Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court first clarified that the Allen standard would no longer apply: 

Reviewing a defendant’s asserted grounds for relief in the light most favorable to defendant is a departure from this Court’s longstanding standard of review. The mere fact that some ground for relief is asserted does not entitle defendant to a hearing or to present evidence. An MAR court need not conduct an evidentiary hearing if a defendant’s MAR offers insufficient evidence to support his claim or only asserts general allegations and speculation.

Slip Op. at 3 (cleaned up). The Court then turned to the applicable review in the current case, explaining that under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), defendant must show (1) deficient performance by his counsel and (2) prejudice from counsel’s errors.

Defendant argued that his trial counsel refused to allow him to testify, despite his desire to do so. The Court noted that the record did not support defendant’s argument, and “[a]t no point during trial did defendant indicate he wished to testify.” Slip Op. at 6. Moving to the appellate counsel issue, the Court explained that the trial court limited the testimony of defendant’s psychologist, prohibiting her from using legal terminology. The Court pointed out that the expert was permitted to testify about defendant’s mental health issues, and the limitations on her testimony were permissible. Because defendant could not demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel in either circumstance, the Court affirmed the denial of defendant’s MAR.  

Justice Berger concurred by separate opinion and discussed the reversal of AllenId. at 9. 

Justice Earls, joined by Justice Riggs, concurred in part and dissented in part and would have found that defendant’s MAR lacked factual support for an evidentiary hearing, but would not have reversed AllenId. at 12. 

State v. Todd, 369 N.C. 707 (June 9, 2017)

The Supreme Court held that it had jurisdiction to decide an appeal from a divided decision of the Court of Appeals reversing a trial court’s ruling denying a MAR. The defendant was convicted of armed robbery. He was unsuccessful on his direct appeal. The defendant then filed an MAR arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction and that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise this claim on appeal. The trial court denied the defendant’s MAR. A divided Court of Appeals reversed, with instructions to grant the MAR and vacate the conviction. The Supreme Court noted that G.S. 7A-30(2) provides an automatic right of appeal based on a dissent at the Court of Appeals. However, that automatic right of appeal is limited by G.S. 7A-28, which states that decisions of the Court of Appeals upon review of G.S. 15A-1415 MARs (MARs by the defendant filed more than 10 days after entry of judgment) are final and not subject to further review. However, the supervisory authority granted to the court by Article IV, Section 12 of the North Carolina Constitution gave the court a restriction to hear the appeal.

State v. Thomsen, 369 N.C. 22 (Aug. 19, 2016)

The Court of Appeals had subject-matter jurisdiction to review, pursuant to the State’s petition for writ of certiorari, a trial court’s grant of its own motion for appropriate relief (MAR). The defendant pleaded guilty to rape of a child by an adult offender and to sexual offense with a child by an adult offender, both felonies with mandatory minimum sentences of 300 months. Pursuant to a plea arrangement, the trial court consolidated the convictions for judgment and imposed a single active sentence of 300 to 420 months. The trial court then immediately granted its own MAR and vacated the judgment and sentence. It concluded that, as applied to the defendant, the mandatory sentence violated the Eighth Amendment; the court resentenced the defendant to 144 to 233 months. The State petitioned the Court of Appeals for a writ of certiorari to review the trial court’s MAR order. The defendant responded, arguing that under State v. Starkey, 177 N.C. App. 264, the court of appeals lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to review a trial court’s sua sponte grant of a MAR. The Court of Appeals allowed the State’s petition and issued the writ. The Court of Appeals found no Eighth Amendment violation, vacated the defendant’s sentence and the trial court’s order granting appropriate relief, and remanded the case for a new sentencing hearing. See State v. Thomsen, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___, 776 S.E.2d 41, 48 (2015). Before the supreme court, the parties disagreed on whether the trial court’s sua sponte motion was pursuant to G.S. 15A-1415(b) (defendant’s MAR) or G.S. 15A-1420(d) (trial court’s sua sponte MAR). The court found it unnecessary to resolve this dispute, holding first that if the MAR was made under G.S. 15A-1415, State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40, 42-43, authorized review by way of certiorari. Alternatively, if the MAR was made pursuant to G.S. 1420(d), G.S. 7A-32(c) gives the Court of Appeals jurisdiction to review a lower court judgment by writ of certiorari, unless a more specific statute restricts jurisdiction. Here, no such specific statute exists. It went on to hold that to the extent Starkey was inconsistent with this holding it was overruled. 

State v. Stubbs, 368 N.C. 40 (Apr. 10, 2015)

Under G.S. 15A-1422, the court of appeals had subject matter jurisdiction to review the State’s appeal from a trial court’s order granting the defendant relief on his motion for appropriate relief. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that Appellate Rule 21 required a different conclusion. In the decision below, State v. Stubbs, 232 N.C. App. 274 (2014), the court of appeals held, over a dissent that the trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole violated of the Eighth Amendment. 

The defendant was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in Gaston County. The evidence of the case largely consisted of mixtures of “touch” DNA profiles found on the victim’s car along with circumstantial evidence based on the defendant’s presence in the area at the time of the murder. The verdict was affirmed on direct appeal. The defendant later filed a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) alleging his innocence based on new evidence, as well as claims for ineffective assistance of counsel and discovery violations. The MAR court conducted an extensive hearing on the motion. Evidence showed that the defendant’s trial counsel was aware of the defendant’s significant medical and psychological issues, some of which may have been relevant to the defendant’s ability to commit the crime. Trial counsel obtained authorization and funding for a psychological evaluation that never occurred and failed to obtain the defendant’s medical records. Trial counsel also obtained the services of a DNA expert for use at trial but failed to review the expert’s professional background or previous testimony. The expert informed trial counsel that the State’s science was “good” and advised counsel not to interview the prosecution’s DNA expert. Defense counsel did not obtain a final report from the expert and failed to question the State’s DNA expert with questions recommended by the defense expert.

At the MAR hearing, the defense presented a new DNA expert who testified that the SBI policies of interpreting mixture DNA at the time were “subjective,” outdated, and inaccurate based on current accepted practices. According to this expert, the DNA mixture relied upon by the State at trial could not be used for “any reliable matching” and that the defendant’s DNA profile was not a match. The trial court granted the MAR and ordered a new trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel stemming from trial counsel’s failure to investigate the defendant’s medical and psychological conditions, as well as trial counsel’s failure to properly prepare to meet the state’s DNA evidence. The post-conviction court also found that the defendant was entitled to a new trial based on new evidence stemming from the evolution of DNA science since the time of trial, finding that changes in the science rendered the State’s DNA evidence at trial “doubtful at best.” The State appealed.

The State generally does not have the right to appeal a defendant’s successful MAR. An exception exists for an MAR granted based on new evidence. In that case, the State may directly appeal, “but only on questions of law.” G.S. 15A-1445(a)(2). Where there is no appeal of right, the State may petition for writ of certiorari to obtain review of the trial court’s grant of the MAR. G.S. 15A-1422(c)(3). Here, the State argued that it was entitled to appeal the entire MAR order, since the order was based in part on new evidence. The Court of Appeals disagreed. Where a right to appeal exists as to one ground of an order and not others, the appealing party is generally limited to arguing only the issue from which the appeal of right lies. “[A] right to appeal those other issues exists only if this Court finds those issues ‘inextricably intertwined with the issues before this Court as of right.’” Carver Slip op. at 9 (citation omitted). Here, the issues of new evidence and ineffective assistance were not “inextricably intertwined.” According to the court:

The newly discovered evidence claim is based on evidence that was unavailable to the defendant at the time of trial. The ineffective assistance claim is based on other, separate evidence that the trial court found to be available to the defendant had his counsel exercised due diligence. Thus, these two claims are based on entirely separate facts and legal issues. Id. at 10.

Further, the exception for a State’s direct appeal of the grant of an MAR based on newly discovered evidence is limited by the “only on questions of law” language in G.S. 15A-1445(a)(2). The State’s argument that it can appeal all issues in the order ignored this limitation.

Finally, even after the defendant moved to dismiss the appeal for lack of appellate jurisdiction, the State failed to file a petition for writ of certiorari. The State’s appeal of the ineffective assistance of counsel claim was therefore dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. The appeal of the new evidence claim was rendered moot as a result, leaving the trial court’s order intact.

On appeal from the denial of the defendant’s MAR, the court clarified that the appropriate standard of review is de novo with respect to conclusions of law.


The State could appeal the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s MAR. 

The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the State had no avenue to obtain review of a trial court order granting his G.S. 15A-1415 MAR (MAR made more than 10 days after entry of judgment) on grounds that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment. The court found that it had authority to grant the State’s petition for writ of certiorari. The court rejected the contention that State v. Starkey, 177 N.C. App. 264, 268 (2006), required a different conclusion, noting that case conflicts with state Supreme Court decisions. 

Under G.S. 15A-1445, the State could appeal the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s MAR on the basis of newly discovered evidence. 

State v. Lee, 228 N.C. App. 324 (July 16, 2013)

State could appeal an amended judgment entered after the trial court granted the defendant’s MAR. The trial court entered the amended judgment after concluding (erroneously) that the 2009 amendments to the SSA applied to the defendant’s 2005 offenses.

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