State v. Ditenhafer, 373 N.C. 116 (Nov. 1, 2019)

The defendant’s husband sexually abused the defendant’s daughter. (The husband was not the daughter’s biological father, but he had adopted her after he married her mother.) The daughter told an aunt about the abuse. This led to law enforcement and DSS investigations. However, the defendant initially did not believe her daughter and instead pressured her to recant her allegations. Even after walking in on the abuse in progress, the defendant sought to prevent her daughter from cooperating with authorities. The defendant was charged with (a) being an accessory after the fact to sexual activity by a substitute parent, based on her failure to report the abuse that she personally observed; (b) felony obstruction of justice for pressuring her daughter to recant; and (c) felony obstruction of justice for denying law enforcement and DSS access to her daughter during the investigation. She was convicted on all counts and appealed, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support each conviction. The case eventually reached the state supreme court, which ruled: (1) There was insufficient evidence to support the accessory after the fact conviction. “[T]he indictment alleged that [the defendant] did not report [her husband’s] sexual abuse of [her daughter, and] a mere failure to report is not sufficient to make someone an accessory after the fact under North Carolina law.” The court distinguished failure to report a crime from affirmative concealment of a crime. The court also “decline[d] to consider any of defendant’s other acts not alleged in this indictment” that might have supported the accessory after the fact charge. (2) There was sufficient evidence to support the defendant’s conviction of obstruction of justice for denying the authorities access to the daughter during the investigation. The court noted that the defendant interrupted one interview of the daughter by investigators, was present and “talked over” the daughter in several others, and generally “successfully induced [the daughter] to refuse to speak with investigating officers and social workers.” The court remanded the matter to the court of appeals for further consideration of whether there was sufficient evidence that the obstruction was felonious by virtue of an intent to deceive or defraud. (The other count of obstruction of justice, for pressuring the daughter to recant, had been affirmed by the court of appeals and was not before the supreme court.) Two dissenting Justices would have found sufficient evidence of accessory after the fact.