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., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021

In this capital case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court abused its discretion by denying his requests for a mistrial because of two statements made by the State during closing arguments at the guilt phase of the trial. During the investigation of the case, the defendant authorized defense counsel to reveal the location of the victim’s body, in hopes of receiving a plea offer or perhaps the possibility of arguing for mitigating circumstances at a possible later capital trial. The defendant and the lawyers agreed that the information would be conveyed to the police but that its source would not be disclosed. The lawyers carried out this agreement in making their disclosure to law enforcement. During closing argument at trial, the prosecutor noted in part that the victim’s body was found “where the defendant’s lawyer said he put the body.” Later, the prosecutor asserted, “And his defense attorney telling law enforcement where to look for the body puts him there.” The court found that the second statement was not improper. Evidence that the information of the victim’s location was conveyed to law enforcement by defense counsel was properly admitted by the trial court and this evidence permitted reasonable inferences to be drawn that were incriminating to the defendant, specifically that the defendant was the source of the information and had been to the location. The prosecutor’s first statement however was improper. This statement was couched as an assertion of fact which was not an accurate reflection of the evidence. However, the statement did not require a mistrial. The court stated: “this sole misstatement of that evidence did not run far afield of what was permissible.”

In this felon in possession of a firearm case, the court held that although some of the prosecutor’s statements were improper, they were not so improper as to deprive the defendant of a fundamentally fair trial.

     The court first determined that, in context, the prosecutor’s use of the term “fool” was not improper. The prosecutor’s remarks related to a gunfight and did not single out the defendant as a fool, but compared him to other fools who behave recklessly with firearms. Additionally there were no repeated ad hominem attacks on the defendant.

     Although the prosecutor’s expressions of personal belief were improper, they were not so grossly improper as to warrant reversal. Specifically, “[t]he prosecutor went too far when he asserted that the witnesses were ‘telling the truth.’” These statements improperly vouched for the truthfulness of the witnesses.

     Although the prosecutor’s statements as to the defendant’s guilt were improper, they did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial. The prosecutor proclaimed that the defendant was “absolutely guilty” and that there was “just no question about it.”

     The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the prosecutor made arguments on matters outside of the record and unsupported by the evidence when he remarked that the defendant told another person to get rid of the gun. The prosecutor’s assertion fairly summarized the evidence and argued a reasonable inference arising from it.

     The court rejected the defendant’s argument that the prosecutor impermissibly advocated that the jury’s accountability to the community should compel a guilty verdict. A prosecutor can argue that the jury is the voice and conscience of the community and ask the jury to send a message to the community regarding justice. A prosecutor may not ask or embolden the jury to lend an ear to the community, such that the jury is speaking for the community or acting for the community’s desires. Here, the prosecutor’s remarks were proper because they involved commonly held beliefs and merely attempted to motivate the jury to come to an appropriate conclusion, rather than to achieve a result based on the community’s demands. Additionally, the prosecutor did not urge that society wanted the defendant to be punished, but rather requested, based on the evidence, that the jury make an appropriate decision.

     The court concluded with this note:

While we reject Defendant’s arguments, we do not condone remarks by prosecutors that exceed statutory and ethical limitations. Derogatory comments, epithets, stating personal beliefs, or remarks regarding a witness’s truthfulness reflect poorly on the propriety of prosecutors and on the criminal justice system as a whole. Prosecutors are given a wide berth of discretion to perform an important role for the State, and it is unfortunate that universal compliance with “seemingly simple requirements” are hindered by “some attorneys intentionally ‘push[ing] the envelope’ with their jury arguments.” Jones, 355 N.C. at 127, 558 S.E.2d at 104. But, because Defendant has failed to overcome the high burden to prove that these missteps violated his due process rights, he is not entitled to relief.

In this DWI case the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to intervene ex mero motu to statements made by the prosecutor in closing argument. The court found the defendant’s argument to be “meritless at best,” noting that the statements at issue were consistent with the evidence presented and did not delve into conjecture or personal opinion. Even if the remarks were improper, the defendant failed to show prejudice.

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