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., 06/09/2023
E.g., 06/09/2023

In this Mecklenburg County case, the Supreme Court reversed an unpublished Court of Appeals decision and affirmed the trial court’s sentencing of defendant at the Class B1 felony level for second-degree murder. 

In February of 2019, defendant went on trial for first-degree murder for shooting a man during a protest. During the jury charge conference, the trial court explained the three theories of malice applicable to the case: actual malice, condition of mind malice, and depraved-heart malice. The verdict form required the jury to identify which type of malice supported the verdict. When the jury returned a verdict of guilty for second-degree murder, all three types of malice were checked on the verdict form. At sentencing, defendant’s attorney argued that he should receive a Class B2 sentence, as depraved-heart malice was one of the three types of malice identified by the jury. The trial court disagreed, and sentenced defendant as Class B1. The Court of Appeals reversed this holding, determining the verdict was ambiguous and construing the ambiguity in favor of the defendant.

Reviewing defendant’s appeal, the Supreme Court found no ambiguity in the jury’s verdict. Explaining the applicable law under G.S. 14-17(b), the court noted that depraved-heart malice justified sentencing as Class B2, while the other two types of malice justified Class B1. Defendant argued that he should not be sentenced as Class B1 if there were facts supporting a Class B2 sentence. The court clarified the appropriate interpretation of the statute, holding that where “the jury’s verdict unambiguously supports a second-degree murder conviction based on actual malice or condition of mind malice, a Class B1 sentence is required, even when depraved-heart malice is also found.” Id. at 7. The language of the statute supported this conclusion, as “the statute plainly expresses that a person convicted of second-degree murder is only sentenced as a Class B2 felon where the malice necessary to prove the murder conviction is depraved-heart malice . . . this means that a Class B2 sentence is only appropriate where a second-degree murder conviction hinges on the jury’s finding of depraved-heart malice.” Id. at 11. The court explained that “[h]ere . . . depraved-heart malice is not necessary—or essential—to prove [defendant’s] conviction because the jury also found that [defendant] acted with the two other forms of malice.” Id. at 11-12. 

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.

In this case arising from a fatal automobile collision involving convictions for second-degree murder, DWI, felony death by motor vehicle, and failure to maintain lane control, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the DWI and felony death by motor vehicle charges due to insufficient evidence of impairment.  There was, however, substantial evidence of malice with respect to second-degree murder and the trial court did not err in submitting that charge to the jury, nor did it err in submitting to the jury the failure to maintain lane control charge. 

Likening the case to its previous decision in State v. Eldred, 259 N.C. App. 345 (2018), the court found that there was insufficient evidence the defendant was impaired at the time of the collision where the officer who formed the opinion on impairment, an opinion based on observations occurring five hours after the collision, did so “entirely through passive observation” of the defendant, without requesting him to perform any field tests.  Moreover, the court noted, the officer did not ask the defendant if or when he and ingested any impairing substances.  The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the DWI charge, and, because DWI was a necessary element of the felony death by motor vehicle charge, also erred in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss that charge.

Substantial evidence supported the failure to maintain lane control charge under G.S. 20-146(d)(1), a statute providing the disjunctive mandates that a motorist must (1) drive his or her vehicle “as nearly as  practicable entirely within a single lane” and (2) refrain from changing lanes unless he or she “has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.”  The defendant had argued that the fact that a tow truck partially obstructed his lane of travel meant that it was not “practicable” for him to drive entirely within that lane.  The court rejected that argument, finding that a reasonable juror could infer that the defendant could have avoided departing from his lane had he been traveling at a reasonable speed for conditions.  The court also explained that there was substantial evidence that the defendant failed to ascertain that his lane change movement could be made with safety as the tow truck also obstructed the defendant’s view of the perils which lay in his chosen lane change path.

The jury was instructed that the defendant would need to be found guilty of either DWI or failure to maintain lane control to be guilty of second degree murder, and having upheld his conviction on the lane control offense the court’s only remaining task was to determine whether there was substantial evidence that the defendant acted with malice.  Recounting the evidence in the light most favorable to the state, the court noted that the defendant was driving while knowing that his license was revoked for DWI and non-DWI offenses, was driving at an irresponsible speed for the icy conditions, made an unconventional maneuver to attempt to pass the tow truck partially obstructing his lane, became involved in a severe collision, left the scene without ascertaining whether anyone was harmed, and washed his car in an apparent attempt to destroy evidence and avoid apprehension.  The court also noted that the defendant’s extensive record of motor vehicle offenses and car accidents was published to the jury, allowing the jury to infer that he was aware of the risk to human life caused by his behavior on the road but nevertheless once again engaged in dangerous driving with indifference to its consequences.  This substantial evidence supported the element of malice by reckless disregard for human life.

Finally, the court determined that any error related to the admission of certain evidence was harmless because that evidence was relevant only to the issue of impairment, and further determined that the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s request for a jury instruction on the defense of accident, assuming the denial was error, was harmless because the jury’s verdicts suggested that it had rejected the notion that the defendant’s fatal unconventional traffic maneuver was unintentional.

In this case involving a conviction for second-degree murder following a fatal motor vehicle accident, the evidence was sufficient to establish malice. Evidence of the defendant’s prior traffic-related convictions are admissible to prove malice in a second-degree murder prosecution based on a vehicular homicide. Here, there was evidence that the defendant knew his license was revoked at the time of the accident and that he had a nearly two-decade-long history of prior driving convictions including multiple speeding charges, reckless driving, illegal passing, and failure to reduce speed. Additionally, two witnesses testified that the defendant was driving above the speed limit, following too close to see around the cars in front of him, and passing across a double yellow line without using turn signals. This was sufficient to establish malice.

In a case involving a conviction for second-degree murder following a fatal motor vehicle accident, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting evidence of the defendant’s past driving offenses. The State’s evidence showed that on 23 November 2016, the defendant was stopped for an expired plate and was issued a citation for driving with a suspended license. At the time of the incident in question, the defendant’s license had been suspended since 22 May 2014 for failure to appear for a 2013 infraction of failure to reduce speed. Since the defendant’s driver’s license was originally issued in September 1997, he had multiple driving convictions including: failure to stop for siren or red light, illegal passing, speeding 80 in a 50, and reckless driving in March 1998; speeding 64 in a 55 in September 2000; speeding 64 in a 55 in October 2000; speeding 70 in a 50 in August 2003; driving while license revoked and speeding 54 in a 45 in January 2005; speeding 54 in a 45 in December 2006; failure to reduce speed resulting in accident and injury in February 2007; a South Carolina conviction for speeding 34 in a 25 in March 2011; speeding 44 in a 35 in January 2012; speeding 84 in a 65 in May 2013; and failure to reduce speed in February 2017 (the conviction corresponding to the 2013 charge on which the defendant failed to appear). Six of these prior convictions resulted in suspension of the defendant’s license. On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court erred by admitting his prior driving record without sufficient evidence establishing temporal proximity and factual similarity. The court disagreed. It found that there was no question that his prior driving record was admissible to show malice. It further held that the trial court’s finding of similarity was supported by the fact that the vast majority of prior charges involve the same types of conduct that the defendant was alleged to have committed in the present case—namely speeding, illegal passing, and driving while license revoked. Although the State did not present evidence of the specific circumstances surrounding the prior convictions, the similarity was evident from the nature of the charges.

            The trial court’s finding of temporal proximity was supported by the spread of convictions over the entirety of the defendant’s record, from the year his license was issued up until the year of the accident in question, showing a consistent pattern of conduct including speeding, illegal passing, and driving with a revoked license. The gaps in time between charges, never greater than three or four years, were not significant. Moreover, many of the gaps between charges occurred when the defendant’s license was suspended and he could not legally drive. The trial court properly determined that the time gaps in this pattern of conduct were less significant in light of the likely causes for the gaps, the defendant’s inability to legally drive. Additionally, the trial court properly gave a limiting instruction

            The court further rejected the defendant’s argument that the evidence should have been excluded because of the 10 year time limit under evidence Rule 609. That rule however only applies to evidence used to impeach a witness’s credibility, which is not at issue here.

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