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., 04/14/2024
E.g., 04/14/2024
(Dec. 31, 1969) , COA22-880, ___ N.C. App. ___ 2023-07-18

In this Cumberland County case, defendant appealed his conviction for first-degree murder by torture, arguing error in (1) denying his motion to dismiss for failure to prove proximate cause, and (2) admitting testimony from two experts for the State. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In November of 2015, the victim, defendant’s 3-year-old daughter, was admitted to the hospital unconscious and with a body temperature of only 88 degrees. The care team at the hospital observed injuries that were indicative of physical and sexual abuse, including tearing of the victim’s anus and bruising on her labia and inner thighs, as well as contusions and hemorrhaging under the skin on her limbs and torso. The victim ultimately died at the hospital, and the cause of death was identified as “acute and organizing bilateral bronchopneumonia in the setting of malnutrition, neglect and sexual abuse.” Slip Op. at 5. At trial, the State called the emergency physician who treated the victim, as well as two other experts, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy and a developmental and forensic pediatrician. Defendant did not object to their testimony at trial. Defendant moved to dismiss the charges at the close of State’s evidence, arguing insufficient evidence to show that he withheld food or hydration to proximately cause the victim’s death. The trial court denied the motion, and defendant was subsequently convicted.  

Taking up (1), the Court of Appeals held that defendant’s conduct was torture sufficient to support the conviction. The court established that first-degree murder by torture does not require a showing of premeditation or specific intent to kill the victim, only a “course of conduct by one or more persons which intentionally inflicts grievous pain and suffering upon another for the purpose of punishment, persuasion, or sadistic pleasure.” Id. at 10, quoting State v. Anderson, 346 N.C. 158 (1997). Here extensive evidence in the record showed that the victim did not eat around defendant and lost weight when in his care. Evidence also showed that defendant would beat the victim for her lack of appetite, and defendant would withhold water from her as punishment. The court concluded that “[b]eating [the victim] with a belt, forcing her to exercise, withholding water, and sexually assaulting her” clearly constituted torture. Slip Op. at 11-12. The court then turned to proximate cause, explaining “[f]ar from being unfortunate and independent causes, [the victim’s] starvation and pneumonia are the ‘natural result’ of Defendant’s ‘criminal act[s]’ of violently and sexually abusing [the victim] . . . there was no break in the causal chain.” Id. at 15. Because the victim’s death was a reasonably foreseeable result of defendant’s actions when applying the standard of a “person of ordinary prudence,” the court concluded there was no error in denying defendant’s motion. Id. at 16. 

Looking to (2), the court applied a plain error standard as defendant did not object at trial to the testimony of either expert. Explaining that Rule of Evidence 702 governs expert testimony, the court first noted that it did not see error in the testimony of either expert. Presuming an error was committed, the court concluded the jury would likely have reached the same verdict without the challenged testimony due to the sheer weight of evidence against defendant. 

(Dec. 31, 1969) , 2022-NCCOA-794, ___ N.C. App. ___ 2022-12-06

In this Brunswick County case, defendant appealed denial of her motion to dismiss the murder charge against her, arguing that it represented double jeopardy. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s denial of the motion. The facts of this case are substantially similar to State v. Tripp, 2022-NCCOA-795, as the defendant in this case is the mother of the child that was abused, and the defendant in Tripp was her boyfriend at the time.

Following the same analysis as the opinion in Tripp, the court applied the same-elements test from Blockburger v. United States, 284 U.S. 299 (1932), and the exception for requisite elements of the crime found in Diaz v. United States, 223 U.S. 442 (1912), to establish the prosecution for murder was not double jeopardy under the felony murder theory. The court also noted “prosecution for first-degree murder theories such as premeditation and deliberation or torture satisfies the Blockburger test and does not violate [d]efendant’s constitutional right to be protected against double jeopardy.” Slip Op. at 10. The court dismissed defendant’s argument that due process protections prevented her prosecution so long after the events, noting the State could not bring charges for murder until the victim’s death.

(Dec. 31, 1969)

In this Mitchell County case, the defendant was convicted of first-degree murder (based on the theories of (a) malice, premeditation and deliberation; (b) felony murder; and (c) torture), possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, and first-degree kidnapping for his role in the death of the victim after several days of subjecting the victim to physical abuse and death threats, interspersed with the defendant’s (and the victim’s) use of methamphetamine.

Apparently believing that the victim, an addict to whom the defendant supplied methamphetamine, had informed law enforcement officers about the defendant’s drug trafficking, the defendant began to threaten and assault the victim, firing pistol rounds near his feet, striking him, putting him in a chokehold, threatening to kill him, and asking others, in the victim’s presence, if the victim should live or die. After smoking methamphetamine with the victim and others, the defendant told the victim that people from Georgia had arrived “to take care of” him, took him outside of a house where a laser beam was focused on him, and asked him if he was ready to die. When the victim attempted to run away, the defendant tackled him and dragged him back toward the house. The defendant then used his cell phone to record the victim pleading for his life. Over the next two days, the group used more methamphetamine and the defendant continued to threaten to kill the victim, to physically abuse him, to prevent him from leaving – at one point binding the victim’s hands with duct tape -- and to film him confessing to various acts. On the third day, the defendant shot the victim in the left shin and obtained a telephone cord to “make [the victim] hang himself.” The victim’s face was turning blue when the cord broke and he fell to the ground. The defendant eventually threw the victim into the yard, telling others on the scene that they could either “get involved or [they] could be next.” The defendant ordered others to hit the victim with a large rock. The defendant then ordered his girlfriend to shoot the victim or he was “gonna hurt [them] all.” The woman shot the victim once in the side of the head, killing him. The defendant then told others to help him dispose of the victim’s body.

(1) The defendant argued on appeal that the trial court erred by denying his request for a jury instruction on voluntary intoxication, asserting that his consumption of methamphetamine defeated his ability to form the specific intent necessary to support first-degree murder based on malice, premeditation and deliberation and the felony-murder rule and first-degree kidnapping. Noting that to be entitled to such an instruction, the defendant must produce substantial evidence that he was so intoxicated he could not inform a deliberate and premeditated intent to kill, the Court of Appeals held that the defendant did not satisfy this requirement. Testimony regarding defendant’s consumption of methamphetamine and his girlfriend’s testimony that he was “wigging” -- meaning that he believed things that were not present were in fact present -- were not enough.

The court reasoned that the defendant’s actions showed that he intended to kill the victim. He brandished a gun, saying he “smelled death.” He wondered out loud about what he would do with the witnesses if he killed the victim, ordered others to hit the seriously-injured victim with a large rock, told his girlfriend to shoot the victim, orchestrated the disposal of the victim’s body, kept a bullet he used to shoot the victim in the leg as a trophy, fled to Georgia after the killing, told his family what he did, and showed videos he recorded of the victim.

The Court also found ample evidence of defendant’s specific intent to kill to support his conviction for felony murder based on first-degree kidnapping. His actions showed his specific intent to unlawfully restrain or confine the victim over successive days, stating he was doing this in retribution for the victim’s alleged snitching. The defendant bound the victim’s hands behind his back, stopped the victim when he tried to run away, told the victim he would be freed if the victim killed his own mother, threatened to kill the victim by making him inject methamphetamine combined with poison, and arranged an attempted hanging of the victim.

(2) The Court of Appeals rejected the defendant’s argument that the trial court erred by failing to dismiss the charge of first-degree murder based on torture. The defendant argued that because the victim died from the gunshot delivered by defendant’s girlfriend, torture was not a proximate cause of his death. The Court of Appeals reasoned that the torture of the victim included defendant’s conduct over the days when the victim was detained, humiliated, beaten, and tortured. The torture included all of the abuse the defendant delivered during that time, including the defendant ordering his girlfriend, under threats to her and her families’ lives, to shoot and kill the victim.

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