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Case Law Corner: Vol. 8

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Can you believe that the last appellate decision for juvenile delinquency cases was back in December of 2022? I wrote about the three opinions in January and it had been quiet ever since... until now! Last month, the Court of Appeals issued an opinion on a Juvenile First-Degree Murder case originating in Buncombe County, and the NC Supreme Court issued its opinion for in re: J.U., for which I had written an earlier blog about the appellate defender’s office preparing for oral arguments. Here’s our summary of both opinions.

State v. Smith

No. COA22-719, 2023 N.C. App. LEXIS 292

Buncombe County

June 6, 2023

Summary: Mr. Smith was tried by jury and found guilty in Buncombe County for a first-degree murder offense. He was 16 years old at the time of the offense, a shooting murder in Asheville, NC. During the trial, and on appeal, defense objected and appealed on many grounds, including voluntary intoxication, lesser-included charge jury instructions, and of particular interest to youth defenders, a request for a special jury instruction on intent, premeditation, and deliberation for adolescents.

Issues Affecting Youth: Whether youth may receive a special jury instruction related to adolescent brain development and its effect on culpability in the absence of evidence of adolescent brain function. No, they may not.

“Although we agree the Supreme Court of the United States has stated ‘children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing [,]’ it has never found this difference relevant to a finding of guilt. In fact, the Supreme Court has articulated their decisions do not ‘suggest an absence of legal responsibility where crime is committed by a minor.’ Defendant concedes that no court has held such and we decline to announce a new legal precedent.

Here, even if the statements in defendant's proposed instructions are, arguably supported by current scientific research, they are not supported by the evidence, since no evidence was presented on adolescent brain function, and they are not a correct statement of the law. The instruction for first-degree murder provided by the trial court fully encompassed the elements of the offense. Defendant's age is not considered nor contemplated in the analysis of premeditation and deliberation; therefore, this instruction would be incorrect and likely to mislead the jury.” (Internal citations omitted)

The Court’s reference to the lack of evidence presented on adolescent brain development being different than that of adults’ brain development, and thus the relevance to culpability, leaves open the door for defenders to ask for this special jury instruction during trials in which an expert or other witness provides testimony or evidence on the difference (and relevance) of adolescents’ brains and their culpability.

In re: J.U.

No. 263PA21, 2023 N.C. LEXIS 419

Cumberland County

June 16, 2023

(On discretionary review of an unpublished opinion)

Summary: The youth was charged adjudicated delinquent on misdemeanor sexual battery, the petition for which alleged that "the juvenile did unlawfully, willfully engage in sexual contact with [B.A.] by touching [her] vaginal area, against the victim[']s will for the purpose of sexual gratification.” (While other charges were petitioned and adjudicated, this was the only remaining charge that was appealed to the NC Supreme Court.) The trial court entered a Level II disposition order, and the youth was required to complete twelve months of probation and up to fourteen twenty-four-hour periods of secure custody in addition to fulfilling certain other requirements.

Issues Affecting Youth: Whether a sexual battery petition that fails to specifically allege the element of force was fatally defective and failed to invoke the trial court's jurisdiction. Under these circumstances, it was not.

“The petition here alleged that J.U. ‘engage[d] in sexual contact with [B.A.] by touching [her] vaginal area, against the victim[']s will for the purpose of sexual gratification.’ By alleging that J.U. touched B.A.'s vaginal area without her consent, the petition asserted a fact from which the element of force was, at the very least, ‘clearly inferable,’ such that ‘a person of common understanding may know what [wa]s intended.’ Thus, the factual allegations in the juvenile petition supported each element of misdemeanor sexual battery. The petition, therefore, complied with statutory pleading standards, and no jurisdictional defect existed.” (Internal citations omitted)

Justice Earls dissented, with Justice Morgan joining, noting that the misdemeanor sexual battery statute requires an element of force, and that if the General Assembly had intended for the omission of the element of force, it could have constructed the statute like that of other states whose statutes do not require a showing of the element of force.

“’[T]]he state has a greater duty to protect the rights of a respondent in a juvenile proceeding than in a criminal prosecution.’ Accordingly, our Court ‘shall’ protect ‘[t]he right to written notice of the facts alleged in the petition’ in order ‘to assure due process of law.’” (Internal citations omitted)

Justice Earls distinguishes that “acting against the will of the victim and acting with force are not synonymous, and the law draws a distinction between both actions,” and “[w]hile the majority characterizes the pleading requirements listed in section 7B-1802 as ‘highly technical[ ] [and] archaic[,]’ those requirements are more properly characterized as constitutional procedural due process protections. Procedural due process is ‘a guarantee of fair procedure.’ While state action that deprives a person of 'life, liberty, or property' is not in itself unconstitutional; what is unconstitutional is the deprivation of such an interest without due process of law." (Internal citations omitted)

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