State v. Corey, ___ N.C. ___, 835 S.E.2d 830 (Dec. 6, 2019)

In this sex offense and indecent liberties case, the court held: (1) a sex offense indictment that identified the child victim as “Victim #1” was fatally defective; (2) the trial court’s erroneous failure to conduct a jury instruction conference prior to submitting the existence of a statutory aggravating factor to the jury did not “materially prejudice” the defendant.

(1) Following its decision in State v. White, 372 N.C. 248 (2019), the court held that an indictment charging the defendant with committing a sex offense with a child was fatally defective and facially invalid because it identified the victim as “Victim #1.”  As in White, the court found that identifying the victim as “Victim #1” did not satisfy the requirement in G.S. 15-144.2(b) that a short form sex offense with a child indictment “[name] the child.” 

(2) The court went on to determine that the trial court’s failure to conduct an instruction conference prior to submitting the existence of the “position of trust or confidence” statutory aggravating factor to the jury was error but that it did not “materially prejudice” the defendant.  After accepting the jury’s verdict in the guilt-innocence phase of the trial, the trial court convened a proceeding for the purpose of determining whether a properly noticed “position of trust or confidence” statutory aggravating factor existed.  The record clearly established that during this proceeding the trial court did not conduct a jury instruction conference or otherwise discuss the manner in which the jury should be instructed concerning the aggravating factor.  G.S. 15A-1231(b) requires trial courts to hold a recorded conference on jury instructions but states that a failure “to comply fully” with the statute does not constitute grounds for appeal unless it “materially prejudiced the case of the defendant.”  The Court of Appeals had held, relying on its own precedent, that the total failure to conduct a jury instruction conference necessitated a new proceeding on the aggravating factor regardless of whether the defendant made a showing of “material prejudice.”  The Supreme Court rejected this approach and its distinction between cases in which the trial judge entirely fails to comply with G.S. 15A-1231(b) and those where there is partial compliance.  Overruling any earlier decisions to the contrary, the Supreme Court explained:

[T]he reference in [G.S.] 15A-1231(b) to the necessity for the trial court to “comply fully” with the statutory requirement that a jury instruction conference be conducted, instead of distinguishing between a complete and a partial failure to comply with the applicable statutory requirement, is intended to require the making of a showing of “material prejudice” a prerequisite to an award of appellate relief regardless of the nature and extent of the trial court’s non-compliance with [G.S.] 15A-1231(b).

With this explanation of the statute, the court proceeded to analyze whether the defendant was materially prejudiced in this case and concluded that he was not, noting that there was undisputed overwhelming evidence that the victim was dependent on the defendant in various ways as his step-child and that the court previously had stated that evidence establishing a parent-child relationship tends to support the aggravating factor at issue.

In separate opinions, Justices Newby and Morgan dissented in part and concurred in result only in part.  Justice Newby dissented from the portion of the majority opinion dealing with the validity of the indictment, noting that the defendant was “fully aware of the identity of the victim” and expressing his view that the indictment was sufficient.  As for the instruction conference issue, Justice Newby interpreted G.S. 15A-1231(b) as not requiring a formal instruction conference at a sentencing proceeding to determine the existence of an aggravating factor.  In a footnote, the majority opinion rejected this interpretation of the statute. 

Justice Morgan also would have found the indictment valid because, scrutinizing the whole record, it sufficiently apprised the defendant of the charge against him.  Justice Morgan noted that the victim’s initials appeared on the arrest warrant that was issued for the defendant and on an indictment returned against him for indecent liberties involving the same victim.  Justice Morgan would have reached the same conclusion as the majority with regard to the instruction conference issue but would have done so by distinguishing rather than overruling the pertinent Court of Appeals opinions.