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., 06/29/2024
E.g., 06/29/2024

Due process required that a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice recuse himself from the capital defendant’s post-conviction challenge where the justice had been the district attorney who gave his official approval to seek the death penalty in the case. The Court stated: “under the Due Process Clause there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case.” It went on to hold that the justice’s authorization to seek the death penalty against the defendant constituted significant, personal involvement in a critical trial decision. Finally, it determined that an unconstitutional failure to recuse constitutes structural error even if the judge in question did not cast a deciding vote; as such the error was not subject to harmless error review.

Caperton v. Massey Coal Co., Inc., 556 U.S. 868 (June 8, 2009)

A violation of due process occurred when West Virginia Supreme Court justice Brent Benjamin denied a recusal motion. The Supreme Court of West Virginia reversed a trial court judgment which had entered a jury verdict of $50 million against A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc. Five justices heard the case, and the vote was 3 to 2. The basis for the recusal motion was that Justice Benjamin had received campaign contributions in an extraordinary amount from, and through the efforts of, Don Blankenship, Massey’s board chairman and principal officer. After the initial verdict in the case, but before the appeal, West Virginia held its 2004 judicial elections. Benjamin was running against an incumbent justice. In addition to contributing the $1,000 statutory maximum to Benjamin’s campaign committee, Blankenship donated almost $2.5 million to a political organization opposed to the incumbent and supporting Benjamin. Additionally, Blankenship spent just over $500,000 on independent expenditures—direct mailings and letters soliciting donations as well as television and newspaper advertisements supporting Benjamin. Blankenship’s $3 million in contributions were more than the total amount spent by all other Benjamin supporters and three times the amount spent by Benjamin’s own committee. Benjamin won, in a close election. In October 2005, before Massey filed its petition for appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court, the plaintiffs in the underlying action moved to disqualify now-Justice Benjamin based on the conflict caused by Blankenship’s campaign involvement. Justice Benjamin denied the motion. In November 2007, the West Virginia Supreme Court reversed the $50 million verdict against Massey. It did so again on rehearing, after another recusal motion was denied. The U.S. Supreme Court held that “Blankenship’s significant and disproportionate influence—coupled with the temporal relationship between the election and the pending case—offer a possible temptation to the average . . . judge to . . . lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true” and that “[o]n these extreme facts, the probability of actual bias rises to an unconstitutional level.”

The defendant failed to demonstrate grounds for recusal. The defendant argued that recusal was warranted based on the trial judge’s comments at various hearings and on the fact that “the trial court was often dismissive of defense counsel’s efforts and made a number of rulings unfavorable to the Defendant.” The court cautioned the trial court with respect to the following statement made at trial: “The other thing I want to do is put on the record that I leave to the appellate courts whether or not any recommendation as to discipline should be made to any of the responses or conduct of the attorneys based upon the record in this case as to whether any of the Rules of Practice or Rules of Conduct have been violated.” The court concluded that although it was unclear what issue the trial court meant to address with this statement, “it is the trial court’s responsibility initially to pass on these concerns if the court has them, especially in view of the fact that the trial court is in a better position than a Court of the Appellate Division both to observe and control the trial proceedings. . . . It is not for the trial court to abdicate its role in managing the conduct of trial to an appellate court whose task is to review the cold record” (citation omitted).

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