State v. Walker, COA23-319, ___ N.C. App. ___ (Apr. 2, 2024)

In this New Hanover county case, defendant appealed his convictions for two counts of first-degree sexual exploitation of a minor, arguing error in (1) denying his motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence, (2) failing to instruct the jury on second-degree exploitation of a minor as a lesser-included offense, (3) allowing a detective to provide testimony regarding the elements of the charged offense, and (4) mistakenly identifying the charge as “sexual assault” one time during the jury instruction. The Court of Appeals found no error. 

In 2018, defendant and a group of friends attended a Halloween party with the plan to find a girl and have sex with her while filming it. Several members of the group made recordings of defendant and others having sex with a minor girl from the party, and these videos were discovered by law enforcement during an unrelated traffic stop. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the charges, but the trial court denied the motion, and defendant was subsequently convicted of both counts. 

For (1), defendant argued that there was insufficient evidence that he engaged in the sex with a minor for the purpose of producing material showing their sexual activity, an essential element of the charges. The Court of Appeals explained that defendant was guilty of the offense because he acted in concert with others. Even if defendant was not the principal offender, the court concluded that “substantial evidence demonstrates [defendant] acted in concert with his friends by engaging in the sexual activity which they recorded with the knowledge they were recording it.” Slip Op. at 9.

Moving to (2), the court looked to the statutes creating the relevant offenses, noting that under G.S. 14-190.16(a)(1) “[t]he focus of first-degree sexual exploitation is the direct mistreatment of the minor or the production of material for sale or profit.” Id. at 13. This contrasted with G.S. 14-190.17(a)(1), where second-degree sexual exploitation criminalized the actions of those “involved in the production or after-the-fact distribution of such material,” without the requirement of producing material for sale or gain. Id. The court also pointed to State v. Fletcher, 370 N.C. 313 (2017), where the Supreme Court highlighted that the second-degree sexual exploitation did not involve directly facilitating the involvement of a minor victim. This led the court to conclude that second-degree exploitation of a minor was not a lesser-included offense. 

In (3), defendant argued that the officer’s testimony instructed the jury that merely being filmed having sex constituted a violation of G.S. 14-190.16(a)(1), and this testimony confused the jury as to the statute’s requirement that defendant must have intent to produce material. The court disagreed, pointing out that the testimony was during cross-examination related to the questioning of one of the friends who attended the party, and the officer “simply answered why he did not feel compelled to question [one of the friends] regarding the filming of the sexual activity, and he gave a logical, albeit legally incorrect, response.” Id. at 16. The court determined this response made sense in context, and was not improperly instructing the jury as to the elements of the offense. 

Arriving at (4), the court explained that the trial court’s mistaken statement that the offense was “sexual assault” only occurred once, during the instruction related to acting in concert. This was inadvertent, and the trial court provided the correct instruction on the elements of first-degree exploitation of a minor, as well as the correct charge when providing a second instruction on acting in concert where the trial court did not make the mistake. As a result, the court found no danger that the jury was confused as to the charge.