State v. Sechrest, ___ N.C. App. ___, 2021-NCCOA-204 (May. 4, 2021)

(1) In this Montgomery County case, the defendant was convicted of indecent liberties with a child and attaining the status of habitual felon.  (1) The defendant argued on appeal that the indecent liberties indictment was fatally defective because it identified the alleged victim only by her initials. The Court of Appeals disagreed.  First, the Court noted that State v. McKoy, 196 N.C. App. 650 (2009), held that identifying the victim by initials was sufficient for an indictment charging second-degree rape and second-degree sexual offense. The Court rejected the defendant’s argument that McKoy was overruled by State v. White, 372 N.C. 248 (2019), a case in which the North Carolina Supreme Court held that a sex offense indictment identifying the victim only as “Victim #1” was insufficient. Next, the Court considered whether the indictment would inform a person of reasonable understanding that the defendant was charged with indecent liberties with a child and whether the use of the victim’s initials protected the defendant’s constitutional rights to notice and freedom from double jeopardy. The Court found the indictment satisfied both requirements. A person with common understanding would know the intent of the indictment, and the record demonstrated that the defendant had notice of the victim’s identity.  The arrest warrants listed the victim’s full name. The defendant was interviewed by officers regarding his contact with the victim, and he admitted that he knew her. The defendant did not argue that he had difficulty preparing his case because the initials were used rather than the victim’s full name. In addition, the victim testified at trial and identified herself by her full name in open court. The Court concluded there was no possibility that the defendant was confused regarding the victim’s identity; therefore the use of initials in the indictment provided the defendant with sufficient notice to prepare his defense and protect himself against double jeopardy. 

(2) The defendant argued that the trial court plainly erred by admitting testimony and evidence that vouched for the victim’s credibility. The defendant objected on appeal (but not at trial) to the introduction of statements from Randolph County Department of Social Services employee Morgan Halkyer and Andrew, the victim’s uncle. Halkyer’s recorded interview with the victim was played for the jury.  In that interview, Halkyer told the victim:  “No kid should ever be put in that situation by an adult, you know, they’re an adult, they should know better.” The Court held that Halkyer did not impermissibly vouch for the victim’s credibility since her statements were not tantamount to an opinion that the victim was telling the truth. Instead, the statements provided the jury with the context of Halkyer’s interview.  In that interview, Halkyer was not attempting to opine about whether the victim was truthful but was comforting the victim with general statements about adult behavior. 

The defendant also argued that the trial court plainly erred in admitting text messages Andrew sent to the victim, in which stated that the defendant committed a crime. Among the texts was a statement that “they need to understand that a 40 year old man took you too [sic] his house and attempted inappropriate actions. It's [sic] may not be sexual assault but it is illegal.” Considering that the jury was instructed that its role was to judge the believability of the witnesses, the victim’s extensive testimony at trial, and the defendant’s statement that “maybe things did go a little too far,” the Court found that the defendant failed to demonstrate that Andrew’s text messages had a probable impact on the jury’s verdict. Thus, the Court held that any error in the admission of this evidence was not plain error.