State v. Beckelheimer, 366 N.C. 127 (Jun. 14, 2012)

Reversing State v. Beckelheimer, 211 N.C. App. 362 (Apr. 19, 2011), the court held that the trial judge did not err by admitting 404(b) evidence. The defendant was charged with sexual offense and indecent liberties. At the time of the alleged offense the defendant was 27. The victim was the defendant’s 11-year-old male cousin. The victim testified that after inviting him to the defendant’s bedroom to play video games, the defendant climbed on top of the victim and pretended to be asleep. He placed his hands in the victim’s pants, unzipped the victim’s pants, and performed oral sex on the victim while holding him down. The victim testified that on at least two prior occasions the defendant placed his hands on the victim’s genital area outside of his clothes while pretending to be asleep. At trial, witness Branson testified about sexual activity between himself and the defendant. Branson, then 24 years old, testified that when he was younger than 13 years old, the defendant, who was 4½ years older, performed various sexual acts on him. Branson and the defendant would play video games together and spend time in the defendant’s bedroom. Branson described a series of incidents during which the defendant first touched Branson’s genital area outside of his clothes while pretending to be asleep and then reached inside his pants to touch his genitals and performed oral sex on him. Branson also related an incident in which he performed oral sex on the defendant in an effort to stop the defendant from digital anal penetration. The court found that Branson’s testimony was properly admitted to show modus operandi. The conduct was sufficiently similar to the acts at issue given the victim’s ages, where they occurred, and how they were brought about. The court of appeals improperly focused on the differences between the acts rather than their similarities (among other things, the court of appeals viewed the acts with Branson as consensual and those with the victim as non-consensual and relied on the fact that the defendant was only 4½ years older than Branson but 16 years older than the victim). The court went on to conclude that given the similarities between the incidents, the remoteness in time was not so significant as to render the prior acts irrelevant and that the temporal proximity of the acts was a question of evidentiary weight. Finally, the court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the evidence under Rule 403.