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., 10/21/2021
E.g., 10/21/2021

In this Bladen County case, the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon after shooting a man in an altercation between several people at an apartment complex. There were conflicting accounts about which of the people involved had guns, although the defendant testified that he fired his weapon when he believed that one of the men with which he was fighting had a gun, and that he was about to be killed. On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred in declining his request to instruct the jury on the affirmative defense of justification to possess a firearm as a felon—a defense recently recognized by the Supreme Court in State v. Mercer, 373 N.C. 459 (2020). To be entitled to a jury instruction on justification, a defendant must meet a four-part test: (1) that the defendant was under unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury; (2) that the defendant did not negligently or recklessly place himself in a situation where he would be forced to engage in criminal conduct; (3) that the defendant had no reasonable legal alternative to violating the law; and (4) that there was a direct causal relationship between the criminal action and the avoidance of the threatened harm. Id. at 464. Additionally, to be entitled to the justification defense, the defendant must possess the firearm only while under threat. Id. Here, taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the defendant, the Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant presented evidence of all the required elements. As to the imminent threat, the victim had knocked the defendant onto his buttocks and heard others saying someone had a gun and “pop him.” As to the second element, the defendant was not the aggressor and attempted to explain to the victim that he was not there to fight. As to the availability of an alternative, evidence showed that the victim attacked the defendant, and a reasonable jury could have concluded that it was too late to call 911 and that running away would have put the defendant at risk of being shot. And as to the causal relationship between the avoidance of harm and the criminal conduct, testimony indicated that the defendant took possession of the firearm only after he heard others saying the victim had a gun, and that he abandoned it when he was able to run away. Finally, the court concluded that the defendant was prejudiced by the trial judge’s failure to give the instruction, as a reasonable jury may have acquitted the defendant on the firearm charge if it had been permitted to consider whether he was justified in possessing it. Accordingly, the majority reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

A dissenting judge would have concluded that the required elements for the justification instruction were not met because the defendant intentionally placed himself in a dangerous situation, and because he had many reasonable alternatives to violating the law.

(1) The State and the defendant’s version of events were inconsistent. For purposes of determining the sufficiency of the evidence supporting a jury instruction on justification, the Court of Appeals recounted the defendant’s version of events. The defendant was in David Harrison’s trailer drinking bourbon when Harrison suddenly stood up while only a few feet from the defendant, pulled a pistol out of his pocket, pointed it toward the wall near the defendant, and fired a shot at the wall. Before pulling out the gun, Harrison had not threatened the defendant in any way, nor did he appear angry or upset. As soon as Harrison fired the shot at the wall, the defendant grabbed the pistol from Harrison and left the trailer. The defendant went to look for Karen Tucker, who was dating his father, and who he believed would be sober and safely able to take the gun from him. When the defendant did not find Karen in her trailer, he waited with the gun in his possession, in the presence of Karen’s daughters, until Karen arrived. The defendant then gave Karen the gun.

Law enforcement officers who later arrived on the scene did not find bullet holes inside of Harrison’s trailer but did find a shell casing sitting on a coffee table. The defendant was charged with a number of offenses, including possession of a firearm by a felon. At trial, the defendant requested a jury instruction on the defense of justification. The trial court denied the request, and the jury found the defendant guilty.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by denying his request for a jury instruction on the defense of justification. Using the test outlined in State v. Mercer, 373 N.C. 459, 463 (2020), the Court of Appeals determined that the evidence at trial was insufficient to establish the first factor of the test, which requires “that the defendant was under unlawful and present, imminent, and impending threat of death or serious bodily injury.” The Court concluded that even assuming Harrison’s drunken act of firing his pistol into the wall or ceiling of his house represented an “impending threat of death or serious bodily injury” to the defendant, that threat was gone once the defendant left Harrison’s trailer with the gun, and the defendant did not take advantage of other opportunities, described in the opinion, to dispose of the gun.

(2) The State conceded that the trial court erred in imposing attorneys’ fees without providing the defendant with notice and an opportunity to be heard. At the time of sentencing, the defendant’s court-appointed counsel had not yet calculated the number of hours worked on the case. The trial court explained to the defendant that those would be calculated later and submitted to the court. The court advised the defendant that it would sign what it felt to be a reasonable fee. The court later entered a civil judgment for $2,220 without first informing the defendant of the amount. The Court of Appeals held that the defendant was not provided sufficient opportunity to be heard before entry of that civil judgment. It thus vacated the civil judgment and remanded the matter to the trial court for further proceedings on that issue.

The defendant was convicted at trial of impersonating an officer and possession of a weapon of mass destruction (flashbang grenades) in Onslow County. On appeal, the Court of Appeals determined that flashbang grenades did not qualify as a weapon of mass destruction and vacated that conviction. The N.C. Supreme Court reversed on that point and remanded for the Court of Appeals to consider the defendant’s other arguments. The defendant filed a new brief with the court, arguing the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury about the exception for lawful possession of weapons of mass destruction. See G.S. § 14-288.8(b)(3). The defendant contended that he presented evidence that he qualified for the exception as a person “under contract with the United States” and it was error to fail to instruct the jury on the exception. While the defendant challenged jury instructions in his original brief to the Court of Appeals, he did not raise this issue. He therefore asked the court to invoke Rule 2 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure to review this argument, and the court granted that request.

At trial, the defendant presented evidence that he was an active-duty U.S. Marine serving as a weapons technician, and that he came into possession of the grenades as part of his duties in that capacity. The State did not contest this evidence at trial, but argued on appeal that the defendant failed to promptly return the weapons to the Marine Corps and that the defendant was “on a detour” (and not acting in his capacity as a solider) at the time of the offense. “Even if the State’s argument is true, this would not overcome Defendant’s properly admitted testimony and his right for the jury to resolve this issue.” Carey Slip op. at 8. The trial court had a duty to instruct the jury on all substantial features of the case, including the defense of lawful possession raised by the defendant’s evidence, and its failure to do so was plain error. The judgment of conviction for possession of a weapon of mass destruction was therefore vacated and the matter remanded for a new trial on that offense.

Judge Young dissented. According to his opinion, the N.C. Supreme Court’s decision remanding the case was limited to “the defendant’s remaining challenges” – those that were raised but not decided in the defendant’s original appeal to the Court of Appeals. The mandate therefore did not include new arguments that had not previously been raised at all, and Judge Young would not have considered the lawful possession argument.

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