State v. Ditenhafer, 376 N.C. 846 (Mar. 12, 2021)

The defendant in this Wake County case was convicted at trial of accessory after the fact to sexual abuse by a substitute parent, felony obstruction of justice based on her failure to report the abuse, and an additional count of felony obstruction based on her interference with the attempts of investigators to interview her daughter (the victim). A divided Court of Appeals initially found the evidence insufficient to support the accessory after the fact conviction, as well as the felony obstruction based on the denial of access by law enforcement to the victim. A divided North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed as to the accessory conviction, but reversed as to the felony obstruction, finding the evidence sufficient (summarized here). The court remanded the matter to the Court of Appeals for it to consider whether the evidence was sufficient for felony or misdemeanor obstruction—specifically, whether the evidence supported a finding that the defendant acted with “deceit and intent to defraud” in denying investigators access to her daughter. An again-divided Court of Appeals determined the evidence supported felony obstruction (summarized here), and the defendant again appealed.

The record showed that the defendant actively obstructed multiple interviews of her daughter by investigators and affirmatively encouraged the daughter to lie to them. While these obstructive acts alone did not establish the element of deceit, there was evidence in the record tending to show that the defendant knew the allegations were true and acted to protect her husband. This evidence included an early admission to investigators acknowledging probable abuse of her daughter; the defendant’s knowledge of her husband’s practice of giving the victim full-body massages; continued acts of obstruction even after being made aware of inappropriate emails sent by her husband to her daughter; and statements by the defendant to her daughter that the allegations would destroy the family. Additionally, the defendant acted to protect her husband even after observing her husband in the act of abusing the child by destroying the bed sheets and by failing to report the abuse to a detective she met with later the same day. Finally, she also attempted flight and instructed her child to not go with police at the time of her arrest (among other circumstances indicating an intent to deceive). This was “more than sufficient” to show the defendant acted with a deceitful motive, and the Court of Appeals was unanimously affirmed.