State v. Mills, ___ N.C. ___, 826 S.E.2d 690 (May. 10, 2019)

The court per curiam affirmed an unpublished decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, ___ N.C. App. ___, 813 S.E.2d 478 (2018) holding that the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion for appropriate relief (MAR) alleging ineffective assistance of appellate counsel with respect to admission of 404(b) evidence of the defendant’s prior sexual acts. The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant made a sufficient showing of both deficient performance by appellate counsel and actual prejudice. The defendant was charged with statutory sexual offense, sex offense by a substitute parent, indecent liberties with a minor, and sexual battery. The defendant filed two motions in limine to preclude testimony of Melissa and Tony (the defendant’s adult niece and nephew) regarding sexual encounters with the defendant that allegedly occurred while the defendant was a teenager. The trial court denied the defendant’s motions and allowed the witnesses to testify under Rule 404(b). Without any contemporaneous objection by defense counsel, the witnesses testified at trial. The defendant was found guilty and was sentenced to prison. Appellate counsel argued that the trial court erred by admitting testimony by Melissa and Tony. However counsel’s brief ignored the fact that trial counsel failed to object to the testimony when it was offered and did not seek plain error review. After reviewing the brief, a member of the Office of Appellate Defender contacted appellate counsel by email and suggested that he either file a substitute brief requesting plain error review or submit a reply brief explaining how the issue had, in fact, been preserved. Appellate counsel responded stating, in part, that it was not necessary to allege plain error. Subsequently the Court of Appeals held that the defendant failed to preserve the issue for review because trial counsel failed to object to the 404(b) evidence at trial. It further stated that it would not review an appeal for plain error where that issue had not been alleged. The defendant subsequently filed a MAR arguing that appellate counsel’s failure to assert plain error deprived him of his right to effective assistance of appellate counsel. At a hearing on the MAR, appellate counsel acknowledged that his representation was deficient. The trial court however denied the MAR, finding that appellate counsel’s performance did not prejudice the defendant because even if appellate counsel had argued plain error, there was no reasonable probability that the Court of Appeals would have found plain error and reversed the conviction. The defendant filed a petition for writ of certiorari seeking review of the MAR order. The Court of Appeals reversed. It began by considering whether the 404(b) evidence was properly admitted at trial as proof of common plan or scheme. It concluded that assuming arguendo that the acts described were sufficiently similar to the instances alleged by the child victim, the temporal proximity requirement of the 404(b) analysis was not met. Each of the acts in question occurred over 20 years before the first incident described by the child victim in this case. Additionally, there was no evidence of recurring sexual acts, nor did the State establish that the defendant’s lack of access to children explained the lack of allegations of sexual contact between the defendant and minors during the intervening decades. The court went on to reject the State’s alternative argument that the trial court properly admitted the evidence to establish the defendant’s motive. In this respect, the court concluded: “Testimony suggesting that a defendant committed a sexual act with a minor in the past is simply not enough by itself to warrant the admission of such evidence under the ‘motive’ prong of Rule 404(b).”

            Having found that the trial court erred by admitting the 404(b) evidence, the court found that the defendant met his burden of showing a reasonable probability that, had the issue been properly raised on appeal, the Court of Appeals would have found plain error and reversed the conviction. Specifically, the court evaluated the evidence in conjunction with the jury’s assessment of the victim’s credibility and the weaknesses in the State’s case, as discussed in the court’s opinion.

            Finally, the court determined that appellate counsel performed below an objective standard of reasonableness, satisfying the first prong of the Strickland ineffective assistance of counsel analysis. The court noted, in part, that appellate counsel ignored the fact that trial counsel had failed to object to the evidence at trial, meaning that the issue was not properly preserved for appeal. Although a request for the court of appeals to conduct plain error review was the only recourse available under the circumstances, appellate counsel failed to invoke the plain error doctrine in his appellate brief. This issue was immediately flagged by a member of the Office of Appellate Defender.