While the law may seem old and static, it is quite dynamic. As part of our state’s “Common Law” jurisprudence (theory or philosophy of law), cases build on each other over time. As a result, the law continuously evolves to compensate for changes in society, technology, and the like. While no two cases are the same, there is often considerable overlap between the old and new. One part the lawyer’s job is analyzing how prior case law is either analogous to, or distinct from the facts of a current case. Sometimes, there is a good fit; other times, not so much. To absolutely no one’s surprise, parties often disagree as to which law applies, or whether the law itself should change. Occasionally, appellate (higher) courts need to weigh in and provide clarity to lower courts, lawyers, and lay citizens alike.
Two important appellate courts in our state are the North Carolina Court of Appeals (the second highest court in the state), and the Supreme Court of North Carolina (The highest court in the State). These courts regularly hand down decisions that affect our state’s criminal law and criminal procedure jurisprudence. In this blog, I will attempt to explain these decisions
and how they may affect your rights.
State v. Metcalf
Who Won: The State
Tags: Jury, Venire, Criminal Negligence, Defective Indictments
Date Decided: November 16, 2021
The Defendant lived with her boyfriend in his trailer. The boyfriend’s three-year-old nephew came to stay with them for a few days, and the Defendant looked after the nephew while her boyfriend was at work. On one of these occasions, The Defendant took one more Xanax than her prescription recommended. It was a cold January day, so she turned on a space heater to keep the trailer warm. While she was in another room, the heater began to malfunction and spark, and by the time the Defendant realized the heater was malfunctioning, the sparks had caught onto the nearby furniture.
The Defendant’s attempts to stop the fire were unsuccessful, as the trailer did not have any running water, and she couldn’t get the fire extinguisher to function. She called for help eventually escaped the trailer with a neighbor’s help.
While outside, neighbors asked if there was anyone else in the trailer, and The Defendant said no. She told the same thing to the responding firefighters, who forwarded the message to dispatch. However, family members of the nephew eventually arrived and insisted he was still in the trailer. Unfortunately, at that point it was too late to safely attempt a rescue. The nephew perished in the fire.
- Whether the court erred on a motion to strike the jury venire. (no)
During the early stages of the trial process, the judge mentioned in the presence of the jury that the Defendant’s attorneys were public defenders. On appeal, the Defendant argued that the judge’s subsequent failure to strike the jury (get rid of all the jurors and start over with new ones) denied the Defendant of her constitutional right to a fair trial by an impartial jury.
The Court of Appeals disagreed and held that the judge’s disclosure did not rise to the level of a constitutional violation because it had no bearing on (1) the facts of the case; (2) whether the Defendant was guilty; or (3) whether the Defendant’s testimony was credible.
- Whether there was enough evidence that the defendant negligently caused the death of a three-year-old child to have a jury decide the case. (yes)
The Defendant argued the State did not present enough evidence to the jury to meet its high burden of proving her negligence beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court of Appeals disagreed on account of (1) the Defendant’s own statement that she could have removed the child from the home when she left; (2) her failure to inform either the neighbors or firefighters that the child was still in the home; and (3) physical evidence of soot in the child’s throat that confirmed he died because he was left in the house.
- Whether the indictment was fatally defective. (no)
The Defendant argued that the indictment by which she was charged lacked the essential elements (the particular things the State must prove in order to find the Defendant guilty) to comprise the crime of involuntary manslaughter. Thus, she argued the “short form” indictment’s failure to do so was unconstitutional, and therefore fatally defective. The Court of Appeals disagreed and upheld the constitutionality of the indictment by pointing out both they, and the North Carolina Supreme Court had previously ruled short form indictments to be constitutional in similar situations.