State v. Pickens, 276A22, ___ N.C. ___ (Oct. 20, 2023)

In this Wake County case, the Supreme Court (1) affirmed the Court of Appeals holding that Rule 404(b) testimony was properly admitted, but (2) reversed the Court of Appeals decision vacating defendant’s sentence for improper consideration of the choice to pursue a jury trial, reinstating defendant’s original sentence. 

From August-September of 2015, defendant, a middle-school chorus teacher, repeatedly raped and assaulted an eleven-year old student in the bathroom of the middle school as the student took her daily trips to the school nurse for medication. The student eventually reported the details of the assaults, leading to defendant’s trial for statutory rape and statutory sexual offense with a child in October of 2019. At trial, defendant filed a motion in limine to prevent the State from admitting testimony under Rule of Evidence 404(b) regarding defendant’s alleged rape of a previous student, but the trial court denied his motion. After the jury found defendant guilty of all charges, he was sentenced to three consecutive active sentences. During sentencing, the trial court addressed defendant regarding the testimony of the two victims and the traumatizing nature of the proceedings. At the end of this statement, the trial court said “[t]hey didn’t have a choice and you, [defendant], had a choice.” Slip Op. at 16. Defendant appealed, and the Court of Appeals majority found no error in admitting the Rule 404(b) testimony, but did find that the trial court improperly considered defendant’s choice to pursue a jury trial when imposing his sentence. The State subsequently appealed based upon the divided panel, leading to the current opinion.  

Taking up (1), the Supreme Court explained that “Rule 404(b) has been characterized as a rule of inclusion, and evidence of prior bad acts is admissible unless the only reason that the evidence is introduced is to show the defendant’s propensity for committing a crime like the act charged.” Id. at 8. However, prior acts must be sufficiently similar and contain “some unusual facts that go to a purpose other than propensity” common to both crimes to be admissible under Rule 404(b). Id. at 13, quoting State v. Beckelheimer, 366 N.C. 127, 132 (2012). Here, the State offered testimony from a victim who was one of defendant’s chorus students in February of 2015. The victim testified that defendant raped her in his apartment while he was taking her to practice for a competition. The State offered this Rule 404(b) testimony to show defendant’s “intent, motive, plan, and design to sexually assault middle school students from schools where he was a teacher.” Id. at 10. Analyzing seven similarities and unique facts shared by assaults, the Court noted the age of the children, defendant’s use of his position as a teacher to gain access, and the style of intercourse defendant attempted with the children. The Court explained the proper analysis “involves focusing on the similarities and not the differences between the two incidents,” and concluded that admission of the Rule 404(b) testimony was not error. Id. at 13. 

Turning to (2), the Court first noted the strong protection for an accused’s right to a trial by jury, and the necessity of a new sentencing hearing if the trial court imposed a sentence “at least in part because defendant . . . insisted on a trial by jury.” Id. at 15, quoting State v. Boone, 293 N.C. 702, 712 (1977). The issue in the current case was whether the “choice” referenced in the sentencing hearing was defendant’s decision to plead not guilty and pursue a jury trial. The Court examined relevant precedent and explained that the statement must be reviewed with the entire record. Here, reviewing the entirety of the trial court’s statement, it was unclear if the trial court was referring to defendant’s choice to pursue a jury trial or to “the egregious nature of [defendant]’s crimes and his decision to commit those crimes.” Id. at 20. The Court concluded that this ambiguity did not overcome the “presumption of regularity” enjoyed by the trial court’s sentence. Id. This led the Court to reinstate defendant’s original sentence.