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., 01/26/2022
E.g., 01/26/2022

The defendant was convicted of attempted first-degree murder for shooting a law enforcement officer who was attempting to serve a warrant for the defendant’s arrest for violating probation. During closing argument, the prosecutor stated:

[You m]ight ask why would [defendant] plead not guilty? I contend to you that the defendant is just continuing to do what he’s done all along, refuse to take responsibility for any of his actions. That’s what he does. He believes the rules do not apply to him.

. . .

[Defendant’s] not taking responsibility today. There’s nothing magical about a not guilty plea to attempted murder. He’s got to admit to all the other charges. You see them all on video. The only thing that’s not on video is what’s in his head. He also knows that those other charges carry less time. There’s the magic.

Slip op. at ¶ 8.

The defendant did not object to the State’s closing argument, and he was convicted of attempted murder and other charges. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court’s failure to intervene during the State’s improper argument was reversible error. The majority of the Court of Appeals panel agreed, holding that the prosecutor’s commentary on defendant’s decision to plead not guilty was so unfair it violated defendant’s due process rights and ordering a new trial. The dissenting judge would have required a showing of prejudice by defendant because he failed to object at trial. Based on the record, the dissenting judge would have held that the State’s closing argument was improper, but that defendant was not prejudiced by the error. The State appealed on the basis of the dissenting opinion, conceding that the argument was improper but arguing that it was not prejudicial.

On appeal, the Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeals erred by failing to analyze prejudice. The high court undertook this review considering the entirety of the closing argument, the evidence, and the jury instructions. The Court noted that the prosecutor made the improper remarks in the context of explaining the intent required for attempted first-degree murder and after emphasizing the deliberate nature of the shooting. The Court characterized the improper argument as a “small portion” of the State’s closing argument and not the “primary” or “major focus.” Slip op. at ¶ 14. The Court noted that the State presented evidence that the defendant told his relatives that he would rather kill himself or be killed by law enforcement than go back to jail. Witnesses testified that the defendant’s gun was loaded with bullets designed to cause more serious injuries. After the officer identified himself, the defendant turned around and fired at the officer. The shootout between the defendant and the officer was captured on hotel surveillance video, which was played for the jury at trial. The Court reasoned that between the video and testimony from eyewitnesses who corroborated the State’s account of events, “‘virtually uncontested’” evidence of the defendant’s guilt was submitted to the jury. Slip op. at ¶ 15. In addition, the trial court instructed the jury that the defendant’s decision to plead not guilty could not be taken as evidence of his guilt, that the defendant was presumed innocent, and that the State was required to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Finally, the jury asked to re-watch the surveillance video of the shooting during its closing argument. The Court stated that this tended “to show that the jury based its decision on the evidence rather than on passion or prejudice resulting from the prosecutor’s improper argument.” Slip op. at ¶ 16. For these reasons, the Court concluded that the defendant was not prejudiced by the prosecutor’s “undeniably improper” closing argument. Slip. op. at ¶ 17. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for consideration of remaining issues.

State v. Ricks [Duplicated], ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (May. 5, 2020) rev’d in part on other grounds, ___ N.C. ___, 2021-NCSC-116 (Sep 24 2021)

The defendant was convicted in a jury trial of multiple counts of statutory rape of a child, statutory sex offense with a child, and taking indecent liberties with a child. The trial court sentenced the defendant to 300 to 420 months of imprisonment and ordered lifetime satellite-based monitoring (“SBM”) upon his release from prison. The defendant appealed from his conviction, arguing that the State made improper closing arguments.

(1) The defendant argued on appeal that several of the prosecutor’s statements in closing argument were improper and prejudicial, identifying five sets of objectionable arguments.

(a) The defendant argued that the prosecutor’s statements to the jury that they “cannot consider what they did not hear” and could not “speculate about what people that did not come into court and did not put their hand on the Bible and did not swear to tell you the truth might have said” improperly commented on the defendant’s exercise of his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself. Assuming without deciding that these comments referred to the defendant’s exercise of his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, the Court of Appeals concluded that arguments were harmless beyond a reasonable doubt given the overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt.

(b) The defendant argued that the prosecutor improperly commented, in reference to the juvenile victims’ testimony, that “[a]dults have to bring them into court and ask them to tell a roomful of strangers about these sexual acts to try and prevent them from occurring in the future to others.” The defendant contended that this comment impermissibly (1) criticized his exercise of the right to a jury trial, and (2) suggested that the juvenile victims had to testify to prevent him from committing future crimes. Assuming without deciding that the prosecutor’s comment referred to the defendant’s right to trial, the Court of Appeals concluded that any error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt in light of the overwhelming evidence of defendant’s guilt. As for the second basis of the defendant’s objection, the court noted that specific deterrence arguments are proper and determined that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in overruling the defendant’s objection to this comment in closing argument.

(c) The defendant contended that the prosecutor impermissibly told the jury that if they acquitted the defendant, “You will be telling [the juvenile victims] it was their fault.” The defendant argued that the statement improperly focused the jury’s attention on how the juvenile victims would interpret a verdict of not guilty rather than on determining whether the State had proven its case against the defendant. The Court of Appeals determined that given the evidence of defendant’s guilt, the prosecutor’s statement was not so grossly improper as to justify a new trial.

(d) The defendant argued that the prosecutor presented an argument that was calculated to mislead or prejudice the jury when he referred to expert testimony about the probability of a random match for the defendant’s DNA profile. The prosecutor told the jury: “If you saw that statistical number [one in 9.42 nonillion] and thought there was still a chance that’s not the defendant’s DNA found in [N.M.], that’s an unreasonable doubt.” Assuming without deciding that the prosecutor’s statement improperly conflated the “chance that’s not the defendant’s DNA found in [N.M.]” with the one in 9.42 nonillion chance of a random match, the Court of Appeals did not find that the statement rendered the conviction fundamentally unfair.

(e) Finally, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in failing to intervene when the prosecutor said, “The DNA tells the truth. The girls told the truth.” The defendant contended that this statement was a prohibited expression of the prosecutor’s personal opinion about the veracity of evidence and witness credibility. The Court of Appeals noted that while an attorney may not express his personal belief as to the truth or falsity of the evidence or as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant, a prosecutor may argue that the State’s witnesses are credible. Considering the record as a whole, the court concluded that the comment did not rise to the level of fundamental unfairness given the evidence presented at trial. The court noted that the State presented the testimony of both juvenile victims, the testimony of the victims’ family members that corroborated their testimony, and the testimony of forensic experts that showed that Defendant’s DNA matched the sperm collected from one of the juvenile victim’s rape kit. Given this overwhelming evidence of guilt, the court was unable to conclude that the prosecutor’s comments prejudiced the defendant.

In this drug trafficking case, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to intervene ex mero motu during the State’s closing argument. During those arguments, the prosecutor, without objection, made references to the defendant’s right to a jury trial and noted that the defendant had exercised that right despite “[a]ll of the evidence” being against him. The defendant has a constitutional right to plead not guilty and be tried by a jury. Reference by the State to a defendant’s failure to plead guilty violates the defendant’s constitutional right to a jury trial. Here, the prosecutor’s comments were improper. The court stated: “Counsel is admonished for minimalizing and referring to Defendant’s exercise of his right to a trial by jury in a condescending manner.” However, because the evidence of guilt was overwhelming the defendant failed to show that the comments were so prejudicial as to render the trial fundamentally unfair.

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