A Randolph County man will have his conviction for a second-degree sexual offense heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court for a second time.
A sharply divided Court of Appeals rejected his argument that he did not receive a fair trial because his attorney had a conflict of interest over whether to call the defendant’s son as a witness. Prosecutors had raised concerns that the attorney had unethically coached the son into giving false testimony.
Samuel Kris Hunt was convicted of second-degree sexual offense and crimes against nature in 2009 for coercing a mentally disabled 17-year-old girl into performing oral sex on him. Court documents refer to the girl, who was friends with Hunt’s daughter and over at Hunt’s house for a sleepover, as “Clara.”
At trial, prosecutors raised concerns that Hunt’s attorney, Jason Goins, had encouraged Hunt’s teenage son, “Chris,” to give false testimony. Chris’ guardian, Wayne Rivers, told prosecutors that after Chris had spoken on the phone to Goins, he claimed that he could say something that would get his father acquitted. Later that night, Rivers said, Chris asked what would happen if he lied in court.
Goins initially told the court that he would not call Chris as a witness, but later moved for a mistrial. He said Chris’ testimony would be truthful and beneficial to Hunt, but Rivers’ allegations put a freeze on his ability to call Chris as a witness.
Judge Edwin G. Wilson denied the motion for a mistrial without holding a hearing into the matter, saying that he had no grounds to do so until Chris was called to testify. Appeals Judge Linda Stephens declined to overturn Wilson’s ruling, saying that the decision was not so arbitrary that the court abused its discretion.
Judge Donna S. Stroud disagreed. In a lengthy dissent, she argued that there was a possible conflict of interest between the defendant and his attorney, and that Wilson should have held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Hunt got a proper defense. Without a hearing, Stroud said there was no way to know whether Chris’ testimony could have helped Hunt and whether Goins had declined to call Chris as witness for fear it might subject him to professional discipline.
“Contrary to the majority’s reasoning, the fact that Chris was not called as a witness did not resolve this conflict, as defense counsel may have chosen not to call Chris to testify to protect his own interests. In fact, that was essentially the choice which the trial court gave him, but this is not a choice which defense counsel should have been required to make,” Stroud wrote.
The split decision obligates the North Carolina Supreme Court to hear the case if Hunt appeals.
The potential conflict wasn’t the only gripe Hunt had with his attorney. He also argued that he received ineffective assistance when Goins asked him under oath if he had “ever done such a thing before,” despite knowing that Hunt’s daughter also had charges pending against him for sexual abuse. By asking this question, it opened the door for the daughter to testify about her alleged abuse.
The court agreed that this tactical error “fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” for a competent defense, but that it was unlikely to have affected the jury’s decision since Hunt had already admitted to having sex with Clara.
Hunt did get some relief from the court. It vacated his conviction for crimes against nature, holding that it put Hunt in double jeopardy because it did not have any elements different from his other charge.
State statutes do not define “crime against nature.” State courts have said its purpose “is to punish persons who undertake by unnatural and indecent methods to gratify a perverted and depraved sexual instinct which is an offense against public decency and morality.” Its constitutionality was questioned after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which held that consensual sexual conduct between adults is protected within the constitutional right to privacy.
In response to Lawrence, the North Carolina Supreme Court limited the scope of the law to “conduct in which a minor is involved, conduct involving non-consensual or coercive sexual acts, conduct occurring in a public place, or conduct involving prostitution or solicitation.” Since Hunt’s conviction for second-degree sexual offense also resulted from his having sex that was non-consensual because of Clara’s disability, the court found that convicting him of both offenses subjected him to double jeopardy.
This will be the second time the Supreme Court hears Hunt’s case. The Court of Appeals vacated the conviction in 2011, finding that the state did not prove Clara’s disability. The Supreme Court reversed that decision, reinstated the conviction, and instructed the Court of Appeals to consider Hunt’s other grounds for appeal.
Goins did not return calls seeking comment on the case. The Randolph County district attorney’s office said it could not comment on the case while an appeal was still possible.
The 36-page decision is State v. Hunt (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-07-0744). The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.