State v. Cataldo (“Cataldo III”), ___ N.C. App. ___, 2022-NCCOA-34 (Jan. 18, 2022)

The defendant was convicted of statutory rape and sex offense in Rockingham County. That verdict was affirmed on appeal in an unpublished decision, and the defendant sought post-conviction relief. He filed a motion for appropriate relief (“MAR”) and a request for post-conviction discovery, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to obtain Department of Social Services (“DSS”) records on the victim from Rockingham and Guilford counties. Specifically, the MAR stated that the DSS records would establish multiple prior false accusations by the victim. The trial court denied the request for discovery and denied the MAR. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari and reversed, ordering the trial court to obtain the DSS records and to conduct an in camera review. The State provided what it alleged to be the complete DSS files relating to the case to the trial court. Reviewing those records, the trial court found that the files did not contain information relevant to the defendant’s case. It also found that the records were incomplete and that the court was unable to complete its review without additional files. The trial court ordered Rockingham DSS (and later Guilford County DSS) to produce records on the victim from three specific time frames. The defendant complained to the trial court that limiting the order to these specific ranges of time was too narrow and would miss relevant records (including the records of the accusation against the defendant himself), but the trial court did not alter its order. When the trial judge ultimately obtained the ordered records and reviewed them, it found the information was not likely to have impacted the verdict and was therefore not material. The motion for post-conviction discovery of the DSS records was consequently denied for a second time. The Court of Appeals granted certiorari again and again reversed and remanded.

The court agreed with the defendant that the trial court improperly limited the scope of the request for DSS records. The defendant’s original request was for DSS records of prior accusations by the victim. While the Court of Appeals order remanding the case for an in camera review of the records mentioned specific time frames as examples, its order was not limited to those time frames and encompassed any and all relevant records. On remand a second time, the trial court was ordered to conduct an in camera review of any DSS records pertaining to prior accusations of abuse by the victim. The court declined to review the DSS records sealed in the file before the trial court has had an opportunity to complete a full review of the relevant records. It noted that the defendant would be entitled to a new trial if the records are deemed material.

Judge Arrowood sat on the panel initially remanding the case and dissented. He believed that the trial court had complied with the original remand order and would have affirmed the trial court’s order denying post-conviction discovery.