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., 02/28/2024
E.g., 02/28/2024
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. 

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