A man convicted of sexually assaulting a young girl will get a new trial because the indictment didn’t identify the victim by name, a divided North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled.
In 2015, Michael Lee White was convicted of sexual offense with a child by an adult offender in Graham County. He appealed his conviction, arguing that the superseding indictment upon which he was convicted was invalid because it identified the victim as “Victim #1” instead of naming the victim, as required by short-form indictment statute for the offense.
The Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, and White asked the Supreme Court for discretionary review. In a 4-2 decision, the court overturned the ruling and ordered a new trial.
“The statutory language is clear and unambiguous: it requires that the child be named as part of the allegations in the indictment,” Chief Justice Cheri Beasley wrote for the court in the May 10 opinion. “In common understanding, to name someone is to identify that person in a way that is unique to that individual and enables others to distinguish between the named person and all other people. The phrase ‘Victim #1’ does not distinguish this victim from other children or victims.”
Even if the court decided that the initials were sufficient, the indictment would still be flawed, Beasley wrote.
“The State concedes that its intent was to conceal the identity of the Child —an intent at odds with the purpose of the naming requirement: to provide Notice of the essential elements of the crime charged to the accused,” she wrote. “This use of the phrase ‘Victim #1’ does not constitute ‘naming the child.’”
The decision says that whether a child should be named in an indictment is up to the General Assembly, not the courts.
“It is true that this Court has created rules for the protection of juvenile victims’ identities in documents filed in the Appellate Division,” Beasely wrote. “This Court has the authority to promulgate rules for the appellate courts. It does not, however, have the authority to rewrite statutes to implement its own policy preferences. It is within the purview of the General Assembly to mandate that the victim’s identifying information be redacted from documents generated in sexual assault prosecutions, a measure that many other states have taken.”
Justices Michael Morgan and Paul Newby dissented from the ruling.
“The majority unfortunately places the fundamental right of a criminal defendant to have sufficient notice of the charges lodged against him and the State’s laudable aim to protect the identity of a minor who is the alleged victim of a sex crime on an unnecessary collision course based upon a narrow and rigid interpretation of the applicable law,” Newby wrote.
John Oates represented the state, and Daniel Statz represented White.
The opinion speaks for itself and the language in the statute is clear, Shatz said. Moreover, as Beasley pointed out, he said any changes to the law would have to be made by the General Assembly.”We just made our argument and let the court issue its ruling,” he said.
Oakes could be reached for comment on the decision.
The 20-page decision is State v. White (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-016-19). The full text of the decision is available online at nclawyersweekly.com
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