State v. Casey, ___ N.C. App. ___, 823 S.E.2d 906 (Jan. 15, 2019)

In this child sexual assault case, the court reversed the trial court’s order denying the defendant’s Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) seeking a new trial for ineffective assistance of counsel related to opinion testimony by the State’s expert. The defendant was convicted of sexual offenses against Kim. On appeal the defendant argued that the trial court should have granted his MAR based on ineffective assistance of both trial and appellate counsel regarding expert opinion testimony that the victim had in fact been sexually abused.

(1) The court began by concluding that the testimony offered by the State’s expert that Kim had, in fact, been sexually abused was inadmissible. The court reiterated the rule that where there is no physical evidence of abuse, an expert may not opine that sexual abuse has in fact occurred. In this case the State offered no physical evidence that Kim had been sexually abused. On direct examination the State’s expert testified consistent with governing law. On cross-examination, however, the expert expressed the opinion that Kim “had been sexually abused.” And on redirect the State’s expert again opined that Kim had been sexually abused. In the absence of physical evidence of sexual abuse, the expert’s testimony was inadmissible.

(2) The court went on to hold, however, that because the defendant failed to raise the issue on direct appeal, his claim that trial counsel was ineffective by failing to move to strike the expert’s opinion that victim Kim had in fact been sexually abused was procedurally defaulted. The record from the direct appeal was sufficient for the court to determine in that proceeding that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Defense counsel failed to object to testimony that was “clearly inadmissible” and the court could not “fathom any trial strategy or tactic which would involve allowing such opinion testimony to remain unchallenged.” And in fact, the trial transcript reveals that allowing the testimony to remain unchallenged was not part of any trial strategy. Moreover trial counsel’s failure to object to the opinion testimony was prejudicial. Because the “cold record” on direct appeal was sufficient for the court to rule on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim, the MAR claim was procedurally barred under G.S. 15A-1419(a)(3).

(3) The court continued, however, by holding that the defendant was denied effective assistance of appellate counsel in his first appeal when appellate counsel failed to argue that it was error to allow the expert’s testimony that Kim had, in fact, been sexually abused. The court noted that the ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim was not procedurally barred. And, applying the Strickland attorney error standard, the court held that appellate counsel’s failure to raise the issue on direct appeal constituted ineffective assistance of counsel. The court thus reversed and remanded for entry of an order granting the defendant’s MAR.

One judge on the panel concurred with the majority “that appellate counsel was ineffective”; concurred in result only with the majority’s conclusion that the claim regarding trial counsel’s ineffectiveness was procedurally barred; but, concluding that the defendant was not prejudiced by the expert’s testimony, dissented from the remainder of the opinion.

There was dissenting opinion in this case.