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., 09/18/2021
E.g., 09/18/2021

In this first-degree murder case, the defendant, who was white, was charged with shooting through a window in his garage door and killing the victim, who was black. The victim was one of a group of about 20 people who had briefly gone to a party at a nearby house, and he was shot and killed when he ran through a portion of the defendant’s yard. The defendant admitted to the shooting, but argued that he was acting in self-defense and defense of habitation. At trial, the defendant testified that he had yelled at the group to “shut the f— up” and they yelled back “f— you; go inside; white boy.” The state’s evidence included a recorded 911 call in which the defendant reported there were “hoodlums” racing in the street (the defendant later admitted this was false) and stated that he was “going to kill him,” he was “locked and loaded,” and he would “secure the neighborhood.”

During closing arguments, the prosecutor stated that the issue of race was “the elephant in the room” since it had been raised during jury selection and alluded to during the defendant’s evidence and closing argument. The defendant objected, but the trial court overruled the objection and allowed the prosecutor to argue that if the defendant’s fear of the victim was based on the victim’s race, then it was not a reasonable fear that would support a claim of self-defense: “Now, reasonableness and that fear, a fear based out of hatred or a fear based out of race is not a reasonable fear, I would submit to you. That’s just hatred. And I’m not saying that’s what it is here, but you can consider that. And if that’s what you think it was, then maybe it’s not a reasonable fear.” The defendant was convicted and appealed. Citing State v. Jones, 355 N.C. 117 (2002), the Court of Appeals held that the prosecutor’s statements regarding race were an improper appeal to bias and reversed the conviction. [Note: For further discussion of the Court of Appeals decision, see Emily Coward, “State v. Copley: Addressing Race During Closing Argument,” N.C. Criminal Law Blog (June 18, 2019).]

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, finding that neither the majority nor the dissent had conducted a “complete prejudice analysis” in the case. The higher court acknowledged Jones but explained that it was an inadequate basis for comparison because the challenged statements in Jones arose during the closing arguments in the sentencing phase of a death penalty case. To properly evaluate prejudice during the guilt-innocence phase of a non-capital case, the reviewing court must also consider: (i) the other evidence of the defendant’s guilt; and (ii) the remainder of the closing argument. Assuming without deciding that the challenged statements were improper, the defendant failed to establish prejudice in this case. First, viewing the comments about race “in the context of the entire closing,” the court found that the comments were only a small part of an argument that primarily focused on the defendant’s lack of credibility, the strong evidence of his guilt, and the absence of a basis for claiming self-defense, which undermined a finding of prejudice. Second, in light of all the other “compelling evidence” of the defendant’s guilt in this case (e.g., incriminating statements recorded on the 911 call, firing through a closed garage door, challenges to the defendant’s credibility, and his admission to the shooting), the defendant failed to meet his burden of demonstrating a reasonable possibility that the jury would have acquitted him in the absence of the prosecutor’s comments. The appellate court’s decision was reversed, and the case was remanded for ruling on the defendant’s remaining arguments.

Justice Earls wrote separately in concurrence to address the unresolved issue of whether the prosecutor’s comments were improper. Derogatory or inflammatory statements appealing to bias or prejudice are improper, but neutral and non-derogatory statements regarding race are permissible if they bear a material relevance to an issue in the case (such as motive). Justice Earls concluded that the prosecutor’s statements in this case were not an appeal to racial animus; instead, they addressed relevant issues of race that had arisen during jury selection and the defendant’s testimony. Therefore, it was “proper and permissible for the prosecutor to urge the jury not to allow any racial considerations or stereotypical assumptions about young black men to impact their ultimate decision about what was reasonable fear in these circumstances.”

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