Often, when the defendant complains on appeal of a constitutional violation at trial, there must be some showing of prejudice in order for the defendant to obtain relief. Even if a defendant shows that a violation occurred, the State usually has an opportunity to demonstrate that the error is harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. If the error is unlikely to have affected the result within the greater context of the trial, the defendant is not entitled to relief under harmless error review. Chapman v. California, 386 U.S. 18 (1967). Some errors, however, are deemed so serious and capable of affecting the fundamental integrity of the trial that harmless error review does not apply. These types of “structural” errors typically entitle the defendant to a new trial without any showing of prejudice and without regard to how the error may have affected the verdict. Continue reading
Category Archives: Procedure
I was reading a WRAL article about the District Attorney wife-hiring trial taking place in Raleigh when the following passage caught my attention: “Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said that, if [former District Attorney] Wallace Bradsher testifies, he cannot simply deliver a monologue from the witness stand and must pose questions to himself to give prosecutors a chance to object to potential testimony.” I hadn’t previously considered how testimony from a self-represented defendant would work. I looked into it, and this post summarizes what I learned. Continue reading →
The defense files a motion to suppress evidence in superior court, and the judge sets the matter for a hearing. The parties and their witnesses show up, ready to give testimony and make their arguments. The judge opens court and asks a simple question: “who’s going first, the state or the defense?”
A view I’ve often heard expressed is that the state has to go first, because even though it was the defendant’s motion which prompted the hearing, “the state always has the burden” and the party with the burden goes first.
That’s generally a correct statement about the burden of proof, but the corresponding rule about order of presentation is a little more… flexible.
When setting conditions of pretrial release in domestic violence cases, magistrates and judges often order a defendant not to contact the victim. Those directives clearly apply to a defendant once he is released from jail subject to those conditions. But what about a defendant who remains in jail? Is he also subject to a no contact condition included on a release order? The court of appeals addressed that issue yesterday in State v. Mitchell.
James Courtney was charged with first degree murder in 2009 for shooting and killing James Deberry outside Deberry’s Raleigh apartment. Courtney was tried on those charges in December 2010. The jury deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial. Four months later, the State dismissed the murder charges, stating on the dismissal form that it had elected not to retry the case. Four years later, the State changed its mind. After gathering new evidence, it sought and received a 2015 indictment once again charging Courtney with first degree murder for killing Deberry. Courtney moved to dismiss the charges, arguing that the State’s dismissal of the initial murder charges following the mistrial precluded the State from recharging him. Was he right?
Back in April 2017, I blogged about State v. Jacobs, ___ N.C. App. ___, 798 S.E.2d 532 (March 12, 2017) here. That post focused on the preservation aspect of the case—the defendant failed to preserve a constitutional challenge to the trial court’s exclusion of evidence in a sexual assault prosecution. The alleged victim, the defendant’s minor daughter, had two sexually-transmitted diseases (“STDs”) that the defendant did not. The defendant wished to present expert testimony about the different test results. The trial court excluded the evidence under Rule 412, the rape shield rule, and the Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed. Because no constitutional challenge to the ruling was made at trial, the Court of Appeals refused to consider the argument that the exclusion of the STD evidence violated the defendant’s right to present a defense. In a 6 to 1 opinion, the N.C. Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals on the Rule 412 issue early last month, granting the defendant a new trial. State v. Jacobs, ___ N.C. ___, 811 S.E.2d 579 (April 6, 2018). Today’s post summarizes the Supreme Court decision, which adds a new wrinkle to the application of Rule 412 in rape and sexual offense cases. Continue reading →
Belk Department Stores are the Bloomingdales of North Carolina. If someone says they are going to Belk (or, more often, “Belk’s”), you know that they are heading into town to pick up some modern, southern style (or, more likely, something off the wedding registry). And if you hear that so-and-so stole something from your local Belk’s, you can generally picture the scene of crime, since, outside of the big cities, there is generally just one Belk’s in town. So when the court of appeals held last year that a Rowan County indictment alleging that the defendant stole shirts belonging to “Belk’s Department Stores, an entity capable of owning property,” was invalid because it failed to adequately identify the victim of the larceny, it may have left some people in Salisbury (where there is only one Belk’s) scratching their heads.
The state supreme court recently reversed that determination in a per curiam opinion that rejected this kind of technical pleading requirement for larceny of personal property.
North Carolina is divided into 44 prosecutorial districts. Each is headed by an elected district attorney or, the case of a mid-term vacancy, a district attorney appointed by the governor. District attorneys are constitutionally and statutorily charged with prosecuting criminal actions in their districts. Each district attorney employs a number of assistant district attorneys who assist in carrying out this work. A district attorney may even, as Jonathan discussed in this earlier post, employ a private attorney to assist with prosecution.
When a district attorney identifies a conflict of interest associated with his or her prosecution of a case, the district attorney may seek assistance with the prosecution from another prosecutorial district, the Attorney General’s Special Prosecution Division, the Administrative Office of the Courts, or the Conference of District Attorneys.
Sometimes, however, the district attorney decides to proceed with prosecuting a case notwithstanding a defendant’s insistence that a conflict of interest exists. When that occurs, the defendant may ask the court to remove the prosecutor from the case. May the court do so? If so, what standard governs the court’s determination of whether the prosecutor is disqualified from the case?
This scenario will sound familiar to many criminal attorneys: you’re in court, the DA calls the next case, and the judge asks John Q. Defendant how he pleads?
“Your Honor, I am not ‘JOHN Q. DEFENDANT,’ which is a fictional corporate entity. I am a natural living being, appearing pro per on behalf of John Q. Defendant, free citizen, for the limited purpose of challenging jurisdiction….” What follows next is a confusing series of questions to the judge about standing and injured parties, and quasi-legal arguments full of buzz words about the U.C.C., admiralty court, strawmen, right to travel, capital letters, red ink, fiduciaries, de facto government, accepted for value, etc. On and on and on it goes, for however long the court is willing to listen.
Yep, you’ve got a “sovereign citizen” on your hands.
Readers may have different opinions on the best way to handle these defendants in court (which I hope you will share in the comments), but I recommend taking the simplest approach of all: don’t play the game.
Over the past several months, the Indigent Defense Education group at the School of Government has been working on updating and expanding its free resources for indigent defenders. On our Indigent Defense Manuals website, you can find new editions of the Immigration Consequences Manual and Juvenile Defender Manual as well as the first installment (on motions practice) of a new Practice Guide Series. Also now available are an updated Expunction Guide and a new edition of a general reference for judges and attorneys on Abuse, Neglect, Dependency, and Termination of Parental Rights Proceedings (prepared by our colleagues Sara DePasquale and Jan Simmons with support from the Administrative Office of the Courts Court Improvement Program). For our two-volume criminal defender manual, we’re taking a slightly different approach and are posting chapters as we complete them. The first ones—on Personal Rights of the Defendant and Duties of the Presiding Judge—are hot off the computer and ready for use. In the next several months, we will be posting several more updated chapters in both Volume 1 on pretrial procedure and Volume 2 on trial procedure. Continue reading →