Case Summaries – N.C. Supreme Court (March 12, 2021)

This post summarizes criminal decisions released by the North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday, March 12, 2021.

(1) Children’s statements to social worker were admissible under Rules 804(3) and 804(24) and their exclusion was prejudicial error; (2) Objections to blood-splatter evidence were preserved; (3) Evidence that defendant Martens overheard his daughter yell, “don’t hurt my dad” was alternatively not hearsay or admissible as an excited utterance and the trial court erred in striking that testimony

State v. Corbett & Martens, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 12, 2021). The defendant Molly Corbett was the daughter of the co-defendant, Thomas Marten. The two were charged with second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter following an altercation with Molly’s husband in Davidson County. The altercation occurred at the couple’s home while Molly’s mother and father were visiting overnight. The defendants were jointly tried, and both were convicted of second-degree murder. A divided Court of Appeals granted a new trial based on three evidentiary errors, as well as errors relating to the jury instructions (that decision is summarized here). Based on a partial dissent at the Court of Appeals, the State sought review at the North Carolina Supreme Court. A divided court affirmed.

(1) Following the incident, the children of the deceased husband (from an earlier marriage) made statements to a social worker at a child abuse advocacy and treatment center. They both indicated their father had been abusive towards Molly. One child provided an explanation for the presence of a brick paver (apparently used in the altercation) found in Molly’s room on the night of the incident. The other child explained that her father originally got angry that evening when she awakened her parents following a nightmare. The children were living out of the country at the time of trial and the defendants sought to admit the hearsay statements as statements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment and under the residual exception ( 803(4) and 803(24), respectively). The trial court excluded the testimony.

Rule 803(4) objections are reviewed de novo, while Rule 803(24) objections are reviewed for abuse of discretion. The statements of the children to the social worker were made for purposes of treatment and were reasonably pertinent to their treatment, satisfying Rule 804(3). When determining whether a child had the requisite intent to make a statement for purposes of treatment, North Carolina courts look to the objective circumstances surrounding the statement, including:

(1) whether ‘some adult explained to the child the need for treatment and the importance of truthfulness’; (2) ‘with whom, and under what circumstances, the declarant was speaking’; and (3) ‘the surrounding circumstances, including the setting of the interview and the nature of the questioning’. Corbett Slip op. at 21 (citation omitted).

All of those factors “strongly supported” admission of the children’s statement on the facts of the case.

The statements were also admissible under the residual hearsay exception. The trial court excluded the statements as lacking trustworthiness. No evidence in the record supported this finding, and the evidence otherwise met the requirements for admission under the residual exception. The majority therefore agreed with the Court of Appeals that the children’s statements were improperly excluded and that the defendants’ self-defense claims were undermined as a result. This was prejudicial error requiring a new trial under both rules.

(2) At trial, the State presented expert testimony regarding blood splatter patterns on the defendants’ clothes. On voir dire, the witness acknowledged that the purported blood splatter at issue was not tested for the presence of blood. He further testified that failing to test the material for blood violated the procedures for blood splatter analysis laid out in his own treatise on the subject. The trial court allowed the testimony over objection. A majority of the Court of Appeals determined the evidence was inadmissible under Rule 702, as it was not based on sufficient data and therefore could not have been the product of reliable application of the method to the facts of the case. The dissenting judge at the Court of Appeals only challenged preservation of this claim and did not discuss the merits of the Rule 702 issue in her opinion. The State also did not seek discretionary review of the Rule 702 ruling on the merits. The Supreme Court therefore examined only the preservation argument.

The majority found that the defendants’ preserved the objection by immediately objecting when the evidence was presented (after having also objected during voir dire of the witness), and by renewing the objection the next day. Further, the court determined the issue was preserved by operation of the law. Under G.S. § 15A-1446(d)(10):

[N}otwithstanding a party’s failure to object to the admission of evidence at some point at trial, a party may challenge ‘[s]ubsequent admission of evidence involving a specified line of questioning when there has been an improperly overruled objection to the admission of evidence involving that line of questioning.’ Corbett Slip op. at 44-45 (citing the statute).

While some subsections of G.S. § 15A-1446 have been found to be unconstitutional, the court has never disavowed this one and found that it applied here. Because the Court of Appeals determined this evidence was improperly admitted and that finding was not at issue on appeal to the Supreme Court, the law of the case dictated that the evidence had been improperly admitted. Thus, the defendants’ objections at trial were improperly overruled and the issue was preserved as matter of law, in addition to the grounds relied upon by the Court of Appeals.

(3) Thomas Marten testified in his defense at trial that he heard his daughter yell, “don’t hurt my dad” during the altercation. The trial court sustained the objection as hearsay. The Supreme Court again agreed with the Court of Appeals that this was error. The statement was not hearsay, as it went the Thomas’s subjective belief of fear at the time and was not offered for the truth of the statement. It was alternatively admissible as an excited utterance under N.C. R. Evid. 803(2). In isolation, this error was not prejudicial because the defendant was otherwise given wide latitude to describe his state of mind at the time. It did however contribute to the cumulative prejudice:

[T]hese errors together imposed a significant constraint on defendants’ efforts to establish a crucial fact: namely, their state of mind at the time of the events in question based on all of the circumstances known to them. Corbett Slip op. at 53.

Because the majority agreed with the decision below regarding these evidentiary issues and their prejudicial impact, the court did not reach the other issues addressed by the Court of Appeals.

Justice Berger, joined by Justices Newby and Barringer, dissented. The dissenting justices believed that the majority improperly re-weighed the evidence on appeal and would have found that Rule 803(4) issues were subject to abuse of discretion review, rather than the de novo review applied by the majority. They also faulted the majority for raising G.S. 15A-1446 when no party argued the applicability of that statute.

Court of Appeals correctly determined that felony obstruction of justice conviction was supported by sufficient evidence of deceit and intent to defraud

State v. Ditenhafer, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 12, 2021). The defendant in this Wake County case was convicted at trial of accessory after the fact to sexual abuse by a substitute parent, felony obstruction of justice based on her failure to report the abuse, and an additional count of felony obstruction based on her interference with the attempts of investigators to interview her daughter (the victim). A divided Court of Appeals initially found the evidence insufficient to support the accessory after the fact conviction, as well as the felony obstruction based on the denial of access by law enforcement to the victim. A divided North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed as to the accessory conviction, but reversed as to the felony obstruction, finding the evidence sufficient (summarized here). The court remanded the matter to the Court of Appeals for it to consider whether the evidence was sufficient for felony or misdemeanor obstruction—specifically, whether the evidence supported a finding that the defendant acted with “deceit and intent to defraud” in denying investigators access to her daughter. An again-divided Court of Appeals determined the evidence supported felony obstruction (summarized here), and the defendant again appealed.

The record showed that the defendant actively obstructed multiple interviews of her daughter by investigators and affirmatively encouraged the daughter to lie to them. While these obstructive acts alone did not establish the element of deceit, there was evidence in the record tending to show that the defendant knew the allegations were true and acted to protect her husband. This evidence included an early admission to investigators acknowledging probable abuse of her daughter; the defendant’s knowledge of her husband’s practice of giving the victim full-body massages; continued acts of obstruction even after being made aware of inappropriate emails sent by her husband to her daughter; and statements by the defendant to her daughter that the allegations would destroy the family. Additionally, the defendant acted to protect her husband even after observing her husband in the act of abusing the child by destroying the bed sheets and by failing to report the abuse to a detective she met with later the same day. Finally, she also attempted flight and instructed her child to not go with police at the time of her arrest (among other circumstances indicating an intent to deceive). This was “more than sufficient” to show the defendant acted with a deceitful motive, and the Court of Appeals was unanimously affirmed.

Suspended sentence for criminal contempt, including conditions that defendant compose an essay on respect for the courts, post it on social media, and moderate the post for negative comments, affirmed per curiam

In Re: Eldridge, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 12, 2021). The defendant was found guilty of criminal contempt relating to his unauthorized Facebook livestreaming of Macon County criminal superior court proceedings. The trial judge sentenced the defendant to 30 days in jail but suspended the sentence on numerous conditions. One condition required the defendant to compose a 2,000-3,000-word essay on respect for the judicial system and to post it to his social media. He was further ordered to monitor the posts of the essay on social media and delete any negative or disparaging remarks made by third parties. The defendant was not allowed to return to court in the district until the essay was posted online. On appeal, the defendant argued that his sentence was illegal and not authorized by the contempt statutes.

As summarized here, the Court of Appeals determined that the trial court had the discretion to suspend a contempt sentence and that the terms of probation were reasonably related to the nature of the offense (and therefore within the trial court’s discretion). Judge Brook dissented in part, noting the potential First Amendment problems with compelling the defendant to delete the comments of third parties on social media. He would have vacated that condition as not reasonably related to the offense or circumstances of the defendant. Based on that partial dissent, the defendant appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. In a per curiam order, the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed. [Jonathan Holbrook blogged in part about the Court of Appeals decision in the case here.]

Defendant was properly ordered to register as a sex offender after felony secret peeping conviction; trial court’s finding that the defendant was a danger to the community was supported by the record

State v. Fuller, ___ N.C. ___ (Mar. 12, 2021). While living with family friends in Wake County, the defendant placed a secret camera in various rooms at different times to record an adult female occupant. He later pled guilty to one count of felony secret peeping. Under the peeping statute, G.S. 14-202(l), the defendant may be required to register as a sex offender for a qualifying conviction (or subsequent conviction) if the court determines the defendant is a danger to the community and that the purposes of the sex offender registration program would be served by requiring the defendant to register. Under G.S. 14-208.5, the purposes of the registration program are to provide law enforcement and the public with information about sex offenders and those who commit crimes against children in order to protect communities. The trial court found that the defendant was a danger to the community and ordered him to register as a sex offender for 30 years. The trial court did not order a Static-99 assessment of the defendant and no evidence was presented regarding the defendant’s likelihood of recidivism. A divided Court of Appeals affirmed (that decision is summarized here) and the defendant appealed.

Reviewing G.S. 14-202(l) de novo, a majority of the court affirmed. It rejected the idea that a Static-99 or evidence of likely recidivism was required to support the finding of dangerousness: “[N]either a Static-99 assessment, nor considerations of likelihood of recidivism, are dispositive on the issue of whether a defendant ‘is a danger to the community.’” Fuller Slip op. at 8. The court looked to the involuntary commitment statutes for guidance on how to evaluate a defendant’s “danger to the community.” Under those statutes, danger to self or others is determined by examining not only the respondent’s current circumstances, but also the person’s “conduct within the relevant past and [whether there is] a reasonable probability of similar conduct within the near future.” Id. at 9 (cleaned up). Thus, a finding that the defendant poses a danger to the community for purposes of G.S. 14-202(l) may be based on the defendant’s current dangerousness or on conduct in the “relevant past” that reflects a “reasonable probability of similar conduct . . . in the near future.” Id. at 10. The trial court found (and the Court of Appeals agreed) that the defendant was a danger to the community based on numerous factors. These included his taking advantage of a personal relationship to commit the crime, the “sophisticated scheme” employed to accomplish the crime, the period of time over which the crime occurred, and the “ease with which the defendant could commit similar crimes in the future,” among other factors. Id. at 11. While the trial court’s finding that the defendant lacked remorse was unsupported by the record, the remaining factors found by the trial court were sufficient to establish the defendant’s dangerousness.

Justice Earls dissented. According to her opinion, the majority contravened precedent requiring the State to show a likelihood of reoffending and disregarded the legislative intent of the registration statutes. She would have found that the trial court reversibly erred by failing to determine the defendant’s risk of recidivism. [Jamie Markham blogged in part about nonautomatic sex offender registration here.]

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