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., 10/21/2021
E.g., 10/21/2021

(1) 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. (2) The defendant’s claim that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment was properly asserted under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(4) (convicted/sentenced under statute in violation of US or NC Constitutions) and (b)(8) (sentence unauthorized at the time imposed, contained a type of disposition or a term of imprisonment not authorized for the particular class of offense and prior record or conviction level, was illegally imposed, or is otherwise invalid as a matter of law).

State v. Stubbs, 232 N.C. App. 274 (Feb. 4, 2014) aff'd on other grounds, 368 N.C. 40 (Apr 10 2015)

The trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s 1973 sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole on a conviction of second-degree burglary, committed when he was 17 years old, violated the Eighth Amendment. The defendant brought a MAR challenging his sentence as unconstitutional. The court began by noting that the defendant’s MAR claim was a valid under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(4) (unconstitutional conviction or sentence) and (8) (sentence illegal or invalid). On the substantive issue, the court found that unlike a life sentence without the possibility of parole, the defendant’s sentence “allows for the realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of his life.” In fact, the defendant had been placed on parole in 2008, but it was revoked after he committed a DWI.

The superior court judge erred by “retroactively” applying Structured Sentencing Law (SSL) provisions to a Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) case. The defendant was sentenced under the FSA. After SSL came into effect, he filed a motion for appropriate relief asserting that SSL applied retroactively to his case and that he was entitled to a lesser sentence under SSL. The superior court judge granted relief. The supreme court, exercising rarely used general supervisory authority to promote the expeditious administration of justice, allowed the State’s petition for writ of certiorari and held that the superior court judge erred by modifying the sentence. The court relied on the effective date of the SSL, as set out by the General Assembly when enacting that law. Finding no other ground for relief, the court remanded for reinstatement of the original FSA sentence.

On the State’s petition for writ of certiorari, the court reversed the trial court and held that no significant change in the law pertaining to the admissibility of expert opinions in child sexual abuse cases had occurred and thus that the defendant was not entitled to relief under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(7) (in a motion for appropriate relief, a defendant may assert a claim that there has been a significant change in law applied in the proceedings leading to the defendant's conviction or sentence, and retroactive application of the changed legal standard is required). Contrary to the trial court’s findings and conclusions, State v. Stancil, 355 N.C. 266 (2002),was not a significant change in the law, but merely an application of the court’s existing case law on expert opinion evidence requiring that in order for an expert to testify that abuse occurred, there must be physical findings consistent with abuse. 

The court reversed the trial court’s order granting the defendant’s motion for reconsideration and motion for appropriate relief (MAR), holding that the requirement that counsel advise the defendant of the immigration consequences of a plea agreement established by Padilla does not apply retroactively. The defendant pled no contest to a drug charge in 1997. In 2015 the defendant asserted a MAR claim under Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), that he was not informed of the impact his conviction would have on his immigration status, particularly the risk of deportation. The trial court initially denied the MAR but subsequently granted a motion to reconsider and entered an order granting the MAR. Reversing, the court noted that it had previously decided, in State v. Alshaif, 219 N.C. App. 162 (2012), that Padilla does not apply retroactively.

Declining to address whether State v. Garris, 191 N.C. App. 276 (2008), applied retroactively, the court held that the defendant’s MAR was subject to denial because the Garris does not constitute a significant change in the substantive or procedural law as required by G.S. 15A-1415(b)(7), the MAR ground asserted by the defendant. When Garris was decided, no reported NC appellate decisions had addressed whether the possession of multiple firearms by a convicted felon constituted a single violation or multiple violations of G.S. 14-415.1(a). For that reason, Garris resolved an issue of first impression. The court continued: “Instead of working a change in existing North Carolina law, Garris simply announced what North Carolina law had been since the enactment of the relevant version of [G.S.] 14-415.1(a).” As a result, it concluded, “a decision which merely resolves a previously undecided issue without either actually or implicitly overruling or modifying a prior decision cannot serve as the basis for an award of appropriate relief made pursuant to [G.S.] 15A-1415(b)(7).” It thus concluded that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to grant relief for the reason requested and properly denied the MAR.

(1) 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. (2) The defendant’s claim that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment was properly asserted under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(4) (convicted/sentenced under statute in violation of US or NC Constitutions) and (b)(8) (sentence unauthorized at the time imposed, contained a type of disposition or a term of imprisonment not authorized for the particular class of offense and prior record or conviction level, was illegally imposed, or is otherwise invalid as a matter of law).

State v. Stubbs, 232 N.C. App. 274 (Feb. 4, 2014) aff'd on other grounds, 368 N.C. 40 (Apr 10 2015)

The trial court erred by concluding that the defendant’s 1973 sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole on a conviction of second-degree burglary, committed when he was 17 years old, violated the Eighth Amendment. The defendant brought a MAR challenging his sentence as unconstitutional. The court began by noting that the defendant’s MAR claim was a valid under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(4) (unconstitutional conviction or sentence) and (8) (sentence illegal or invalid). On the substantive issue, the court found that unlike a life sentence without the possibility of parole, the defendant’s sentence “allows for the realistic opportunity to obtain release before the end of his life.” In fact, the defendant had been placed on parole in 2008, but it was revoked after he committed a DWI.

The defendant, who was 14 years old at the time of the offense, was convicted of first-degree murder in 1997. In 2018, the trial court granted a motion for appropriate relief and vacated his conviction based on newly discovered evidence in the form of an affidavit from William McCormick indicating that other young men committed the crime. The Court of Appeals agreed with the State’s arguments that the trial court abused its discretion when it granted the defendant a new trial based on newly discovered evidence, and erred when it determined that the defendant’s due process rights would be violated if he were not allowed to present the evidence at a new trial. (1) As to the first argument, the Court held that the defendant failed to prove the purported newly discovered evidence as required under seven-factor analysis set out in State v. Beaver, 291 N.C. 137 (1976). Based on inconsistencies between McCormick’s testimony and his affidavit and internal inconsistencies in the affidavit itself, the Court could not agree with the trial court’s conclusion that the purported new evidence in it was “probably true.” Moreover, the information in McCormick’s testimony did not meet the requirement in G.S. 15A-1415(c) that newly discovered evidence “must be unknown or unavailable to the defendant at the time of trial in order to justify relief.” To the contrary, the defendant’s trial attorney had indications that McCormick may have had information about the crime but failed to use a subpoena or material witness order to secure his testimony for trial. Furthermore, despite McCormick’s known presence at the defendant’s trial, the defendant’s attorney never alerted the trial court, asked for a continuance or recess, or otherwise took steps to get information from him. As such, the evidence was not unknown or unavailable at the time of trial. The Court also concluded that McCormick’s testimony was not “competent, material, and relevant” as to the statements made by Robert Shaw about the purported true killers because that testimony was inadmissible hearsay. The Court held that the trial court abused its discretion by concluding that the evidence was admissible under the residual exception in Rule 803(24), as there was no indication in the record that the defendant satisfied the requirement to give the State notice of its intent to offer evidence pursuant to the rule. (2) As to the State’s second argument, the Court agreed that the trial court erred in concluding as an independent ground for decision that the defendant’s due process rights would be violated if he were not allowed to present McCormick’s testimony at a new trial. The Court concluded that the Beaver factors set out the test for determining whether the defendant is entitled to a new trial, and the defendant did not satisfy them. A concurring judge noted that the Court’s holding did not bar the defendant from seeking post-conviction relief through a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.

State v. Rhodes, 366 N.C. 532 (June 13, 2013)

Reversing the court of appeals, the court held that information supporting the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) was not newly discovered evidence. After the defendant was convicted of drug possession offenses, his father told a probation officer that the contraband belonged to him. The trial court granted the defendant’s MAR, concluding that this statement constituted newly discovered evidence under G.S. 15A-1415(c). The court concluded that because the information implicating the defendant’s father was available to the defendant before his conviction, the statement was not newly discovered evidence and that thus the defendant was not entitled to a new trial. The court noted that the search warrant named both the defendant and his father, the house was owned by both of the defendant’s parents, and the father had a history of violating drug laws. Although the defendant’s father invoked the Fifth Amendment at trial when asked whether the contraband belonged to him, the information implicating him as the sole possessor of the drugs could have been made available by other means. It noted that on direct examination of the defendant’s mother, the defendant did not pursue questioning about whether the drugs belonged to the father; also, although the defendant testified at trial, he gave no testimony regarding the ownership of the drugs.

In this murder case, the trial court properly granted the defendant a new trial on the basis of newly discovered evidence. At trial one of the State’s most important expert witnesses was SBI Agent Duane Deaver, who testified as an expert in bloodstain pattern analysis. Deaver testified that the victim was struck a minimum of four times before falling down stairs. Deaver stated that, based on his bloodstain analysis, the defendant attempted to clean up the scene, including his pants, prior to police arriving and that defendant was in close proximity to the victim when she was injured. The court held that Deaver’s misrepresentations regarding his qualifications (discussed in the opinion) constituted newly discovered evidence entitling the defendant to a new trial. 

Because the trial court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to rule on the defendant’s MAR claim alleging a violation of the post-conviction DNA statutes, the portion of the trial court’s order granting the MAR on these grounds is void. The court noted that the General Assembly has provided a statutory scheme, outside of the MAR provisions, for asserting and obtaining relief on, post-conviction DNA testing claims.

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