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

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. He also argued that the trial court erred in imposing lifetime SBM because the State failed to establish that SBM constitutes a reasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

(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.

(2) Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals granted certiorari review of the trial court’s order imposing lifetime SBM and invoked Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to consider the defendant’s constitutional claim, which was not raised before the trial court.

The trial court determined at sentencing that the defendant was convicted of reportable convictions pursuant to G.S. 14-208.6(4) and that statutory rape of a child by an adult and statutory sex offense were sexually violent offenses and aggravated offenses involving the sexual abuse of a minor. Pursuant to these findings, the court ordered that the defendant enroll in lifetime SBM upon his release from imprisonment.

The trial court did not, however, conduct a hearing to determine the constitutionality of ordering the defendant to enroll in SBM, as required by State v. Grady, 259 N.C. App. 664 (2018), aff’d as modified, 372 N.C. 509 (2019), and the State did not present any evidence regarding the reasonableness of an SBM search, which would be carried out following the defendant’s release from prison in 25 to 35 years.

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court’s failure to hold a hearing to determine the reasonableness of lifetime SBM for the defendant rendered the SBM order unconstitutional. The court thus vacated the imposition of lifetime SMB without prejudice to the State’s ability to file a subsequent SBM application.

A dissenting judge would have dismissed the defendant’s petition for certiorari review of the SBM order based on his failure to raise the constitutional challenge before the trial court.

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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