State v. Wohlers, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Aug. 4, 2020)

The defendant was convicted of indecent liberties with a child and felony child abuse by sexual act based on crimes committed against his daughter and stepdaughter. 

(1) The court of appeals determined that the trial court did not plainly err in instructing the jury on felonious child abuse by sexual act. G.S. 14-318.4(a2) provides that any parent or legal guardian of a child under 16 who “commits or allows the commission of any sexual act upon the child is guilty of a Class D felony.” The trial court instructed the jury in accordance with NC Pattern Jury Instruction – Criminal 239-55B that a “sexual act is an immoral, improper or indecent touching or act by the defendant upon the child.” On appeal, the defendant argued that the definition of “sexual act” in G.S. 14-27.20(4) should apply. The term is therein defined as “[c]unninglingus, fellatio, analingus, or anal intercourse, but does not include vaginal intercourse.” It also includes “the penetration, however slight, by any object into the genital or anal opening of another person’s body.” 

The court of appeals in Wohlers found the defendant’s argument foreclosed by State v. Alonzo, 373 N.C. 437 (2020). In Alonzo, the state supreme court concluded that the definitions in G.S. 14-27.20 applied only within Article 7B of Chapter 14. Thus, the Alonzo court held that it was error for the court of appeals below to have concluded that the definition of sexual act in G.S. 14-27.20(4) applied to offenses under G.S. 14-318.4(a2), which is contained in Article 39 of Chapter 14. 

(2) The court of appeals determined that even if the trial court erred in failing to strike testimony from a forensic interviewer that arguably vouched for the victim’s credibility, the defendant could not show he was prejudiced by the error. The interviewer testified that the defendant’s stepdaughter’s disclosure was “tentative,” and that “she’s a child who falls into the I want to tell someone so this will stop, but I don’t really want it to go past that, and I just want it to be done.” The defendant did not move to strike the testimony at trial, but argued on appeal that it was impermissible vouching of the victim’s credibility. 

The court held that the defendant could not show that the alleged error had a probable impact on the jury’s finding that he was guilty, noting that the defendant himself had provided a written statement that was consistent with the victim’s testimony and which was introduced as evidence at trial.

(3) The court of appeals held that the trial court properly determined the defendant’s maximum term of imprisonment for felony child abuse by sexual act, a Class D felony, based upon the minimum term it had selected (64 months) rather than the minimum term permitted by statute (51 months). G.S. 15A-1340.17(f) provides that, for offenders sentenced for reportable convictions that are Class B1 through E felonies, the maximum term of imprisonment “shall be equal to the minimum term of imprisonment and twenty percent (20%) of the minimum term of imprisonment, rounded to the next highest month, plus 60 additional months.” Once the trial court set the defendant’s minimum term of imprisonment at 64 months (the top of the presumptive range), it properly added 64 plus 13 (20 percent of 64, 12.8, rounded to the next highest month) plus 60, totaling 137 months.