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., 06/27/2022
E.g., 06/27/2022

In this Lee County case, the trial judge granted a motion for appropriate relief and awarded a new trial for a defendant who was convicted of first-degree murder committed when he was fourteen years old, largely on the basis of a confession made during a police interrogation conducted outside the presence of a parent or guardian. Years later, postconviction counsel located a new witness who claimed a different person had confessed to the crime, exculpating the defendant. The trial court found the new witness’s testimony credible and granted the MAR based on the newly discovered evidence and ordered a new trial. The Court of Appeals reversed, saying the trial court abused its discretion and erred in granting a new trial, in that the defendant’s affidavit failed multiple prongs of the seven-factor test for evaluating newly discovered evidence set forth in State v. Beaver, 291 N.C. 137 (1976). State v. Reid, 274 N.C. App. 100 (2020).

After allowing the defendant’s petition for discretionary review, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, concluding that the trial court properly applied the Beaver test. First, the trial court did not err in concluding that the newly discovered evidence was “probably true,” despite the inconsistencies in the new witness’s testimony. It was the factfinder’s role—not the role of the Court of Appeals—to evaluate the credibility of the witness and make findings of fact, which are binding on appeal if supported by the evidence. The Court of Appeals thus erred by reweighing the evidence and making its own findings as to whether the new evidence was “probably true.”

Second, the trial court did not err in finding that the defendant’s trial counsel had exercised due diligence in attempting to procure the newly discovered evidence. The trial court’s findings that an investigator had earlier attempted to find the new witness and that those efforts were unsuccessful due in part to interference by the witness’s mother were supported by the evidence and binding on appeal. The Court noted that the “due diligence” prong of the Beaver test requires “reasonable diligence,” not that the defendant have done “everything imaginable” to procure the purportedly new evidence at trial. Where, as here, neither the defendant nor his lawyer knew whether the sought-after witness actually had any information about the victim’s killing, hiring an investigator was deemed reasonable diligence without the need to take additional steps such as issuing an subpoena or asking for a continuance.

Third, the Court concluded that the trial judge did not err in concluding that the new witness’s testimony was “competent” even though it was hearsay. The evidence was admitted without objection by the State, and was therefore competent. And in any event, the test for competence within the meaning of the Beaver test is not admissibility at the MAR hearing, but rather whether it would be material, competent, and relevant in a future trial if the MAR were granted. Here, the trial court properly concluded that the new witness’s testimony would have been admissible at trial under the residual hearsay exception of Rule 803(24).

Finally, the trial court did not err in concluding that the addition of the newly discovered evidence would probably result in a different outcome in another trial. Though the defendant’s confession was admissible, it was nonetheless the confession of a fourteen-year-old and might therefore receive less probative weight in a case like this where the other evidence of the defendant’s guilt was not overwhelming.

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded the case for a new trial.

Chief Justice Newby, joined by Justice Barringer, dissented. He wrote that the defendant failed to meet the “due diligence” prong of the Beaver test in that he did not take reasonable action at trial to procure the evidence he later argued was newly discovered. The Chief Justice disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that hiring an investigator was enough. Rather, he wrote, the defense lawyer should have gone to the trial court for assistance in obtaining testimony from the witness (such as through a material witness order), or spoken to other witnesses who likely had the same information (such as the sought-after witness’s brother).

State v. Hyman, 371 N.C. 363 (Aug. 17, 2018)

(1) On review of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 797 S.E.2d 308 (2017), in this murder case, the court affirmed the holding of the Court of Appeals that the defendant’s ineffective assistance of counsel (IAC) claim was not procedurally barred under G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3) (a claim asserted in a MAR must be denied if, upon a previous appeal, the defendant was in a position to adequately raise the ground or issue underlying the present motion but did not do so). To be subject to the G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3) procedural default bar, the direct appeal record must contain sufficient information to permit the reviewing court to make all the factual and legal determinations necessary to allow a proper resolution of the claim. Here, the defendant was not in a position to adequately raise the IAC claim on direct appeal. A Strickland IAC claim requires a defendant to show both deficient performance and prejudice. The nature of the defendant’s claim would have required him to establish that his attorney was in a position to provide favorable testimony on his behalf, that her failure to withdraw from representing the defendant in order to testify on his behalf constituted deficient performance, and if she had acted as he asserts she should have, there is a reasonable probability that he would not have been found guilty of murder. Here, the defendant would have been unable to make a viable showing based on the evidentiary record developed at trial.

(2) Reversing the Court of Appeals, the court found that the record contains adequate evidentiary support for the trial court’s findings that the factual basis for the defendant’s IAC claim did not exist. The defendant’s IAC claim alleged that his lawyer should have withdrawn from representing him at trial and testified on his behalf with respect to a conversation that she had with a witness. The trial court found as a fact that the defendant presented no credible evidence during the MAR hearing that the alleged conversation between defense counsel and the witness ever took place. After reviewing the evidence presented before the trial court, the court found that the record contains sufficient evidence to support the trial court’s finding of fact that the alleged conversation never occurred.

State v. Long, 365 N.C. 5 (Feb. 4, 2011)

With one justice taking no part in consideration of the case and with the other members of the court equally divided, the court affirmed, without opinion, a ruling by the trial court on the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief. The case was before the court on writ of certiorari to review the trial court’s order. The question presented, as stated in the defendant’s appellate brief, was: “Whether the trial court erred in finding in a capitally-charged case that failing to disclose exculpatory SBI reports, testifying falsely as to what evidence was brought to the SBI and failing to preserve irreplaceable biological evidence did not violate due process?”

In this Robeson County case, the defendant was found guilty after a jury trial of second-degree murder, aggravated felony death by vehicle, and other offenses based on a motor vehicle crash that resulted in the death of a passenger. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to dismiss the charge of second-degree murder based on insufficiency of the evidence on malice. The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting evidence that showed the defendant, who had a history of impaired driving convictions, drove after consuming alcohol, continued to consume alcohol while driving over several hours, had a BAC that may have been as high as 0.20, and drove recklessly by engaging the emergency break and falling asleep while driving. Viewing that evidence in the light most favorable to the State, the Court concluded that there was sufficient evidence to submit the charge of second-degree murder to the jury.

The defendant also argued that the trial court erred by denying his motion for appropriate relief (MAR) alleging that a witness had recanted his trial testimony indicating that the defendant was the driver of the vehicle. That witness testified at an evidentiary hearing on the MAR that his trial testimony was false, but later asserted his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination on cross-examination, and then eventually failed to show up at all for a final hearing on the motion. The trial court found that the witness waived his privilege by testifying at the first hearing, but then substantially prejudiced the State’s ability to present its argument by failing to reappear and undergo cross-examination. The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court properly applied the rule from State v. Ray, 336 N.C. 463 (1994), by striking the witness’s direct evidence in its entirety. Without that testimony, the defendant failed to meet his burden of proof, and the trial court thus properly denied the motion.

The defendant was convicted of statutory rape and sex offense in Rockingham County. That verdict was affirmed on appeal in an unpublished decision, and the defendant sought post-conviction relief. He filed a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) and a request for post-conviction discovery, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to obtain Department of Social Services (“DSS”) records on the victim from Rockingham and Guilford counties. Specifically, the MAR stated that the DSS records would establish multiple prior false accusations by the victim. The trial court denied the request for discovery and denied the MAR. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari and reversed, ordering the trial court to obtain the DSS records and to conduct an in camera review. The State provided what it alleged to be the complete DSS files relating to the case to the trial court. Reviewing those records, the trial court found that the files did not contain information relevant to the defendant’s case. It also found that the records were incomplete and that the court was unable to complete its review without additional files. The trial court ordered Rockingham DSS (and later Guilford County DSS) to produce records on the victim from three specific time frames. The defendant complained to the trial court that limiting the order to these specific ranges of time was too narrow and would miss relevant records (including the records of the accusation against the defendant himself), but the trial court did not alter its order. When the trial judge ultimately obtained the ordered records and reviewed them, it found the information was not likely to have impacted the verdict and was therefore not material. The motion for post-conviction discovery of the DSS records was consequently denied for a second time. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari again and again reversed and remanded.

The court agreed with the defendant that the trial court improperly limited the scope of the request for DSS records. The defendant’s original request was for DSS records of prior accusations by the victim. While the Court of Appeals order remanding the case for an in camera review of the records mentioned specific time frames as examples, its order was not limited to those time frames and encompassed any and all relevant records. On remand a second time, the trial court was ordered to conduct an in camera review of any DSS records pertaining to prior accusations of abuse by the victim. The court declined to review the DSS records sealed in the file before the trial court has had an opportunity to complete a full review of the relevant records. It noted that the defendant would be entitled to a new trial if the records are deemed material.

Judge Arrowood sat on the panel initially remanding the case and dissented. He believed that the trial court had complied with the original remand order and would have affirmed the trial court’s order denying post-conviction discovery.

The defendant, who had underlying health conditions, was not entitled to relief on a MAR under G.S. 15A-1415(b)(8) on the basis of his prison sentence being invalid as a matter of law as a form of cruel and unusual punishment due to the coronavirus pandemic.  The Court of Appeals explained that the defendant’s 77 to 105 month term of imprisonment was lawful at the time it was imposed before the pandemic began and that the defendant had identified no precedent indicating that requiring a person to serve an otherwise lawful sentence during pandemic times makes the sentence cruel and unusual.  The defendant was not entitled to state habeas relief because of procedural deficiencies in his MAR.

The trial court did not have jurisdiction to resentence the defendant for obtaining property by false pretenses, where the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR), which was granted by the trial court, challenged only his conviction for possession of stolen goods, a separate CRS case that was not consolidated with the fraud conviction. 

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