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

In this Cumberland County case, defendant appealed the superior court order sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOPP) for two counts of first-degree murder committed while he was a juvenile. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s order. 

In 1998, defendant was convicted of murdering two law enforcement officers and was sentenced to death. Defendant was 17 years old at the time of the murders. Defendant’s convictions were upheld on direct appeal in State v. Golphin, 352 N.C. 364 (2000). After defendant was convicted, the U.S. Supreme Court issued Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), holding death sentences for juveniles violated the Eighth Amendment; Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012), holding that a mandatory sentence of LWOPP was unconstitutional for a juvenile; and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 577 U.S. 190 (2016), holding that Miller’sprohibition on mandatory LWOPP must be applied retroactively to those already sentenced to mandatory LWOPP. Defendant was initially resentenced to mandatory LWOPP in December of 2005, after filing a motion for appropriate relief (MAR) under Roper. In the current case, defendant filed a MAR in July of 2018, alleging his sentence was unconstitutional under Miller and Montgomery. A sentencing hearing was held in 2022, where the MAR court reviewed the nine mitigating factors from G.S. 15A-1340.19B and sentenced defendant to consecutive sentences of LWOPP. 

The Court of Appeals first explained the scope of its review was abuse of discretion, and that the relevant considerations were the mitigating factors from G.S. 15A-1340.19B(c), along with the additional factor from State v. Kelliher, 381 N.C. 558 (2022), that the sentencing court must make an express finding of “a juvenile’s permanent incorrigibility” before imposing LWOPP. Slip Op. at 12. The court then grouped defendant’s arguments in two categories, (1) that defendant’s sentence of LWOPP should be reversed based on Kelliherbecause he was capable of reform, and (2) the MAR court incorrectly weighed the mitigating factors of G.S. 15A-1340.19B. Taking up (1), the court quickly dispensed with defendant’s arguments, as defendant did not challenge the findings of fact as unsupported by the evidence and they were binding on his appeal.

Because defendant did not challenge the findings of fact, the court moved to (2), and specifically the weight the MAR court gave to each of the nine mitigating factors and the express finding of incorrigibility under Kelliher. A significant portion of the opinion (pages 15 to 30) were spent examining the factors and the weight given by the MAR court to each. The court ultimately concluded that “the Sentencing Order properly addressed each factor as required by [G.S.] 15A-1340.19A and Kelliher.” Id. at 31. After noting the possible differing views on the mitigating impact of the factors, the court found no abuse of discretion and affirmed the order. 

(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 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.

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. 

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.

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 New Hanover County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder, arguing error in (1) denying his motion to dismiss for lack of evidence he was the perpetrator; (2) overruling his objection that the trial court did not make necessary findings on reliability for expert testimony; (3) denying his post-conviction motion for appropriate relief (MAR) based upon newly-discovered evidence; (4) admitting evidence of his prior removal of an electronic monitoring device; and (5) overruling his objections to the State’s closing argument. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In January of 2016, officers responded to a call about a fourteen-year-old being shot. While accompanying the ambulance to the hospital, they received a report of additional shots fired, and diverted to the scene, where the officers found defendant running from the area. After arresting defendant, officers found he was carrying a 9mm handgun. The State Crime Laboratory later matched the bullet that killed the victim to this handgun. Defendant was subsequently convicted and appealed. 

Taking up defendant’s argument (1), the Court of Appeals explained that because the evidence that defendant was the perpetrator was circumstantial, proof of motive, opportunity, and means were necessary to support the inference that defendant committed the crime. Here, the State admitted evidence that the shooting was in retaliation for a previous shooting two weeks prior, and that the shell casing found at the scene, the bullet in the victim, and defendant’s statements to police all tied him to the murder. As a result, “[a] reasonable juror could find Defendant had the opportunity and means to commit the murder.” Slip Op. at 8. 

Turning to (2), the court noted that trial courts enjoy wide latitude when determining admissibility of expert testimony. Here, defendant argued that the State’s firearm expert did not utilize “reliable principles and methods” in violation of Rule of Evidence 702, as the State’s expert utilized a micro-analysis test instead of a lands and grooves test on the projectile, a method disputed by the defense’s expert. Id. at 10. The court found no abuse of discretion as “[t]he superior court made supported findings to resolve purported contradictions between the competing experts.”

Reviewing (3), the court explained defendant’s newly discovered evidence concerned the history of the State’s expert receiving a complaint from a superior court judge as well as a mistake during a firearm examination in a previous case. The court noted that the State was not in possession of the expert’s personnel records and was not aware of the purported mistake, and under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), the State had not suppressed material evidence. The court further noted that defendant was not entitled to a new trial as the newly discovered evidence “merely questions the expert witness’ past, not the State’s evidence at this trial.” Id. at 14. 

Arriving at (4), the court explained that the trial court’s decision to admit evidence of defendant removing his electronic monitoring device fifteen days before the shooting under Rule of Evidence 404(b) was not error. Defendant “disabled his electronic monitoring device approximately an hour after another murder was committed two weeks earlier in the same area of Wilmington . . . [t]he evidence and timing of these incidents and Defendant’s actions are part of the chain of events that contextualize the crime.” Id. at 16. 

Finally, the court dispensed with (5), explaining that the prosecutor’s closing argument did not shift the burden onto defendant, as the statements merely referenced defendant’s failure to refute the evidence admitted at trial. Likewise, the prosecutor’s reference to a link between the murder and retaliation for a previous murder was not an improper reference to “gangs” and was supported by evidence and testimony admitted at the trial. 

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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