A man sentenced to at least 50 years in prison for molesting his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter will get a new sentencing because he didn’t have a relationship of “trust and confidence” with the toddler that would support an aggravated sentence, the North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled in a split decision.
Bobby Helms of Union County dated the victim’s mother. He had met the victim only twice before the assault, once when she was a newborn, and once when her mother brought her along for her first date with Helms when the victim was three years old. Helms molested the girl during a trip to his parents’ house as the mother looked on. The victim told her stepmother about the incident, and her stepmother reported it to the police.
In 2017, a jury convicted Helms of two counts of engaging in a sex offense with a child under 13 and two counts of taking indecent liberties with a minor. It also found that the state had proven two aggravating factors: that Helms had taken advantage of a position of trust or confidence to commit the crime, and that the victim was very young. Based on the aggravating factors, the judge sentenced Helms to no less than 50 years in prison.
A divided Court of Appeals panel upheld the sentence. But in a Sept. 21 opinion written by Justice Robin Hudson, the Supreme Court overruled the decision and remanded the case for resentencing. The evidence presented at trial wasn’t sufficient to prove trust or confidence as aggravating factors because the victim didn’t rely on Helms for her caretaking, Hudson wrote. Helms never took care of the victim, nor did she ever spend the night in the same place as him.
“The state’s evidence showed only that [the victim] trusted the defendant in the same way she might trust any adult acquaintance, a fact which our courts have found to be insufficient to support this aggravating factor,” Hudson wrote.
The state argued that the relationship between Helms and his victim wasn’t relevant because Helms had taken advantage of the girl’s relationship with her mother. It suggested that the jury had relied on an “acting in concert” theory because lawyers for both Helms and the state had focused on Helms’ relationship with the mother in closing arguments.
But defense counsel didn’t specifically argue an acting in concert theory before closing argument, and the jury wasn’t instructed on the theory. The appellate courts couldn’t justify the jury’s decision based on a theory that the jurors weren’t instructed consider in the first place, Hudson wrote.
Justice Paul Newby was the only justice to dissent from the court’s ruling.
“Here the child victim had a relationship of trust and confidence with her mother,” he wrote. “Defendant also had a relationship of trust or confidence with the victim’s mother. Defendant actively leveraged both relationships to sexually assault the child.”
Neither a spokesperson for the state Department of Justice, nor Ann Peterson of Chapel Hill, who represented Helms, could be reached for comment on the court’s ruling.
The 13-page opinion is State v. Helms (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-043-19).
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzonclw