Case Summaries — Supreme Court of North Carolina (November 1, 2019)

This post summarizes three opinions issued by the Supreme Court of North Carolina on November 1, 2019.

(1) A mother’s failure to report that her husband sexually abused her daughter did not make the mother an accessory after the fact to the husband’s abuse. (2) The mother’s persistent refusal to allow her daughter to talk candidly with law enforcement or DSS about the abuse was obstruction of justice.

State v. Ditenhafer, __ N.C. __ (Nov. 1, 2019). The defendant’s husband sexually abused the defendant’s daughter. (The husband was not the daughter’s biological father, but he had adopted her after he married her mother.) The daughter told an aunt about the abuse. This led to law enforcement and DSS investigations. However, the defendant initially did not believe her daughter and instead pressured her to recant her allegations. Even after walking in on the abuse in progress, the defendant sought to prevent her daughter from cooperating with authorities. The defendant was charged with (a) being an accessory after the fact to sexual activity by a substitute parent, based on her failure to report the abuse that she personally observed; (b) felony obstruction of justice for pressuring her daughter to recant; and (c) felony obstruction of justice for denying law enforcement and DSS access to her daughter during the investigation. She was convicted on all counts and appealed, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support each conviction. The case eventually reached the state supreme court, which ruled: (1) There was insufficient evidence to support the accessory after the fact conviction. “[T]he indictment alleged that [the defendant] did not report [her husband’s] sexual abuse of [her daughter, and] a mere failure to report is not sufficient to make someone an accessory after the fact under North Carolina law.” The court distinguished failure to report a crime from affirmative concealment of a crime. The court also “decline[d] to consider any of defendant’s other acts not alleged in this indictment” that might have supported the accessory after the fact charge. (2) There was sufficient evidence to support the defendant’s conviction of obstruction of justice for denying the authorities access to the daughter during the investigation. The court noted that the defendant interrupted one interview of the daughter by investigators, was present and “talked over” the daughter in several others, and generally “successfully induced [the daughter] to refuse to speak with investigating officers and social workers.” The court remanded the matter to the court of appeals for further consideration of whether there was sufficient evidence that the obstruction was felonious by virtue of an intent to deceive or defraud. (The other count of obstruction of justice, for pressuring the daughter to recant, had been affirmed by the court of appeals and was not before the supreme court.) Two dissenting Justices would have found sufficient evidence of accessory after the fact.

A prosecutor’s legal assistant conducted an impermissibly suggestive identification procedure when she showed two witnesses a suspect’s video-recorded interview with police and a recent photograph of the suspect, all after the witnesses had previously been unable to identify the suspect as a perpetrator. However, one of the witnesses’ in-court identification of the defendant was independent of the suggestive procedure.

State v. Malone, __ N.C. __ (Nov. 1, 2019). Two men were angry about being cheated in a drug deal. They approached a house and shot two other men – one fatally – who they thought were involved in the rip-off. The victims were on the front porch at the time of the shooting. Two women who were also on the porch viewed photo lineups in an attempt to identify the perpetrators. They both identified one suspect. Neither identified the defendant as the other man, though one said that his picture “looked like” the suspect. The defendant was charged with murder and other offenses. Several years later, a legal assistant with the district attorney’s office asked the women to come to the office for trial preparation. The legal assistant showed the women part of the defendant’s video-recorded interview with police as well as updated pictures of the defendant. One of the women looked out the window and saw the defendant, in a jail uniform and handcuffs, being led into the courthouse for a hearing. She immediately stated that he was one of the killers. The other woman came to the window and also saw the defendant. Both women later identified the defendant at trial as one of the perpetrators. The defendant argued that the identification was tainted by what he contended was a suggestive identification procedure conducted by the legal assistant. The trial judge found that the procedure was not unduly suggestive, and that in any event, the women’s in court testimony was based on their independent recollection of the events in question. The defendant was convicted and appealed. The court of appeals found the procedure to be impermissibly suggestive and reversed the defendant’s conviction. The State appealed, and the supreme court ruled: (1) The trial preparation session was an “impermissibly suggestive” identification procedure. Given that the women had not previously identified the defendant as a participant in the crime, the legal assistant’s “actions in showing [the women] the video of [the defendant’s] interview and recent photographs of [the defendant and the co-defendant] are exactly the kind of highly suggestive procedures that have been widely condemned as inherently suggestive” and amounted to improper “witness coaching.” (2) However, the procedure did not give “rise to a substantial likelihood of irreparable misidentification . . . because the trial court’s findings of fact support the legal conclusion that [one of the women’s] in-court identification of defendant was of independent origin and sufficiently reliable.” Among other factors, the court highlighted the woman’s proximity to the perpetrators, her opportunity to observe them, and the fact that when she saw a picture of the defendant online shortly after the crime – wearing his hair in a style different from his lineup photo and apparently more similar to his appearance at the time of the crime – she identified him as a perpetrator. (3) Because one of the women made a valid in-court identification, any error in admitting the other woman’s identification of the defendant was harmless. Three Justices, dissenting in part, would not have addressed whether the procedure at issue was unduly suggestive and would have decided the case based only on the “independent origin” holding.

Defendant’s motion to dismiss at the close of the evidence adequately preserved the issue of the sufficiency of the evidence for appeal.

State v. Royster, __ N.C. __ (Nov. 1, 2019). The defendant was seen handling a black box in connection with a possible drug transaction/ransom payment. The next day, officers found a black box full of cocaine in the woods nearby. The defendant was charged with and convicted of trafficking by possession. He appealed, arguing that the State’s evidence was insufficient. A divided court of appeals agreed that there was insufficient evidence that there was cocaine inside the box at the time that defendant was seen handling it. On further appeal, the supreme court held that the defendant adequately preserved the sufficiency issue, as his motion to dismiss at the close of all the evidence included an argument about possession. The supreme court divided equally on the merits, with Justice Davis not participating. The opinion of the court of appeals therefore stands without precedential value.

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