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State v. China

Supreme Court of North Carolina

April 6, 2018

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
NATHANIEL MALONE CHINA

          Heard in the Supreme Court on 12 December 2017.

          Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 797 S.E.2d 324 (2017), finding no error in part and vacating and remanding in part judgments entered on 5 February 2016 by Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. in Superior Court, Durham County.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Grady L. Balentine, Jr., Special Deputy Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

          Richard Croutharmel for defendant-appellee.

          HUDSON, Justice.

         Defendant Nathaniel Malone China was convicted by a jury on 1 February 2016 of a number of offenses, including felonious breaking or entering, first-degree sexual offense, second-degree kidnapping, misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury, and intimidating a witness. Here we must decide whether there was sufficient evidence of restraint that was separate and apart from that inherent in the commission of the first-degree sex offense to support the kidnapping conviction. The Court of Appeals concluded that there was not and vacated defendant's conviction for second-degree kidnapping. State v. China, __ N.C. App. __, __, 797 S.E.2d 324, 328-30 (2017). Because we conclude that the evidence of restraint beyond that inherent in the commission of the sex offense did suffice, we reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In 2008 defendant began a romantic relationship with Nichelle Brooks. At some point thereafter, defendant was sent to prison. During his incarceration, until the summer of 2013, defendant continued to talk occasionally with Ms. Brooks by telephone. On one of these phone calls, Ms. Brooks, who was then involved with Mark, [1] informed defendant that she had begun a new relationship. Nonetheless, defendant called Ms. Brooks after his release from prison seeking to resume their prior relationship. Ms. Brooks agreed to meet with defendant at her apartment, hoping to make clear that their relationship was over. Later that day, defendant met Ms. Brooks at her apartment, spent the night, and then left the following morning.

         During this time, Ms. Brooks asked Mark not to visit her for a few days so that she could "get things in order" with defendant. Believing that she had successfully ended her relationship with defendant, Ms. Brooks told Mark that he could return to her apartment. Mark visited Ms. Brooks on 14 October 2013 and spent the night at her apartment. The following morning, 15 October, Mark was still asleep when Ms. Brooks left to take her daughter to the bus stop and to go to school at Durham Beauty Academy.

         Mark awoke when he heard people outside of the apartment. He looked out the window and, not seeing anything of concern, returned to bed. Moments later, Mark heard a knock; he went to the door, looked through the peephole, and saw two men he did not recognize. At trial, Mark identified one of these men as defendant. As Mark made his way back to the bedroom, he heard banging on the door, enough to cause the door to shake. Mark began to dress in his work uniform, when he heard a loud boom as the door was kicked in.

         Defendant rushed into the apartment and ran towards the bedroom, cursing at Mark. Before Mark had a chance to defend himself, defendant punched him in the face, knocking him sideways onto the bed. Defendant then got on the bed and on top of Mark, continuing to curse and strike Mark in the face with his fist. Defendant was hitting Mark solely in the face up to this point, and the last blow caused Mark to roll over completely onto his stomach. At that point, defendant punched Mark in the back of the head, stunning him. Defendant then pulled down Mark's pants and anally penetrated him three times with his penis.

         Mark then swung his right arm to get defendant off of him, and defendant "jumped off of Mark. While Mark was "kicking away" at defendant, defendant grabbed him by the ankles, yanking him off the bed and causing the back of Mark's head to hit the floor. Defendant called to his companion, who came into the room; together they began "kicking and stomping" Mark, who was on the floor with his back pressed against a dresser. Mark testified that the two men were kicking and stomping "[m]y face, my head, my back, my ribs, my legs, my knees. . . . It was everywhere." During this time, Mark "was balling [his body] up" trying to protect himself. Eventually, defendant and the other man stopped kicking, and Mark quickly got up and ran out of the apartment. Mark still had his keys in his pocket, and although he was dizzy and bleeding badly, he ran to his car and was able to drive to his place of employment for help. Mark woke up at Duke Hospital in a significant amount of pain. In addition to the injuries to his face, Mark testified that his "ribs were really sore" and his knees were "really messed up, " that he "couldn't walk, really, " and that he was forced "to crawl to the bathroom at home to go to the bathroom" for the next two to three weeks. Mark also suffered emotional injuries as a result of the incident.

         On 4 November 2013, defendant was indicted in Durham County on charges of felonious breaking or entering, felonious assault inflicting serious bodily injury, and first-degree kidnapping. The indictment for kidnapping alleged that defendant "unlawfully, willfully and feloniously did kidnap [Mark], a person over the age of sixteen years, without his consent, by unlawfully restraining him for the purpose of facilitating the commission of a felony, doing serious bodily harm to [Mark], and terrorizing [Mark]." On 7 April 2014, defendant was indicted on charges of first- degree sexual offense, crime against nature, and intimidating a witness. A separate indictment on 1 June 2015 charged defendant as an habitual felon. The district attorney dismissed the indictment for intimidating a witness, and defendant agreed to proceed on that charge under a criminal bill of information. Additionally, the State dismissed the charge of crime against nature before trial.

         Defendant was tried in the Superior Court in Durham County during the criminal session that began on 26 January 2016 before Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. At trial, the State chose to proceed on second-degree kidnapping instead of first-degree kidnapping. At the close of the State's evidence, defendant moved for dismissal of the charges. The trial court agreed to submit to the jury the charge of misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury, as opposed to felonious assault inflicting serious bodily injury, and denied defendant's motion with respect to the other charges. On the charge of kidnapping, the trial court instructed the jury:

Count number three. Under counter [sic] number three, the Defendant has been charged with second degree kidnaping. For you to find the Defendant guilty of this offense, the State must prove three things beyond a reasonable doubt.
First, that the Defendant unlawfully restrained [Mark], that is, restricted his freedom of movement,
Second, that [Mark] did not consent to this restraint,
And, third, the Defendant did this for the purpose of terrorizing [Mark]. Terrorizing means more than just putting another in fear. It means putting that person in some high degree of fear, a state of intense fright or apprehension.

         On 1 February 2016, the jury found defendant guilty of felonious breaking or entering, misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury, second-degree kidnapping, first-degree sexual offense, and intimidating a witness. Defendant then admitted to having attained habitual felon status. Judge Hight sentenced defendant to consecutive terms of 150 days for misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury, 78 to 106 months for breaking and entering, 88 to 118 months for second-degree kidnapping, 336 to 416 months for first-degree sex offense, and 88 to 118 months for intimidating a witness. At the State's request, the trial court conducted a resentencing proceeding on 5 February 2016, at which Judge Hight arrested judgment on the misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury conviction. Defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals.

         At the Court of Appeals, defendant first argued that the trial court erred in allowing the jury to hear that he had been recently released from prison. China, __ N.C.App. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 327. The panel unanimously held that defendant did not preserve that issue for appeal; therefore, they did not reach the merits of his argument on that issue. Id. at __, __, 797 S.E.2d at 327-28, 330.

         Defendant next argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to dismiss the kidnapping charge because the evidence was insufficient to prove that any confinement or restraint was separate and apart from the force necessary to facilitate the sex offense. The Court of Appeals majority agreed, noting that this Court has previously opined that "certain felonies . . . cannot be committed without some restraint of the victim" and the statutory offense of kidnapping "was not intended by the Legislature to make a restraint, which is an inherent, inevitable feature of such other felony, also kidnapping so as to permit the conviction and punishment of the defendant for both crimes." Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 329 (quoting State v. Ripley, 360 N.C. 333, 337, 626 S.E.2d 289, 292 (2006)). The majority concluded that the evidence here "describe[d] a sudden attack" that "took no more than a few minutes." Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 329. Further, the majority rejected the State's contention that removal of the victim from the bed to the floor and the subsequent stomping and kicking of Mark was an action separate from the assaults themselves. Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 329. The majority then concluded that "there is no evidence in the record that Mark was subjected to any restraint beyond that inherent in defendant's commission of first-degree sex offense and misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury." Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 329. Accordingly, the majority concluded that the trial court erred by denying defendant's motions to dismiss the kidnapping charge. Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 329. The majority instructed the trial court on remand to vacate defendant's conviction for second-degree kidnapping and correct the judgments to retain defendant's consecutive sentences for his remaining convictions. Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 329-30.

         Writing separately, Judge Dillon concurred in part and dissented in part; he disagreed with the majority that there was insufficient evidence that defendant "restrained the victim beyond the restraint inherent to the sexual assault." Id. at __, 797 S. E2d at 330 (Dillon, J, concurring in part and dissenting in part). Judge Dillon noted that the removal of the victim from the bed to the floor occurred after defendant completed his sexual assault on the victim. Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 330. Judge Dillon added, "Then, while the victim was on the floor, Defendant restrained the victim by beating and kicking the victim, preventing the victim from getting up." Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 330. In his dissent, Judge Dillon opined, "Granted, this separate restraint did not last long. But this restraint which occurred while the victim was on the floor was not inherent to the sexual assault which was completed while the victim was on the bed." Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 330. The dissenting opinion also noted that while defendant was also convicted of assault, the trial court arrested judgment on the assault conviction. Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 330 n.3. Accordingly, Judge Dillon would have held that the verdict and judgment for kidnapping should stand. Id. at __, 797 S.E.2d at 330.

         The State filed its appeal of right based on the dissent.

         Analysis

         The State argues that the trial court did not err in denying defendant's motion to dismiss the kidnapping charge because there was sufficient evidence of restraint that was separate and apart from that inherent in the commission of the sex offense. We agree.

         When ruling on a defendant's motion to dismiss for sufficiency of the evidence, the trial court must determine "whether there is substantial evidence (1) of each essential element of the offense charged, or of a lesser offense included therein, and (2) of defendant's being the perpetrator of such offense." State v. Powell, 299 N.C. 95, 98, 261 S.E.2d 114, 117 (1980) (first citing State v. Roseman, 279 N.C. 573, 580, 184 S.E.2d 289, 294 (1971); then citing State v. Mason, 279 N.C. 435, 439, 183 S.E.2d 661, 663 (1971)). "Substantial evidence is relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." State v. Turnage, 362 N.C. 491, 493, 666 S.E.2d 753, 755 (2008) (quoting State v. Crawford, 344 N.C. 65, 73, 472 S.E.2d 920, 925 (1996)). Furthermore, "the trial court must consider the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, drawing all reasonable inferences in the State's favor." State v. Miller, 363 N.C. 96, 98, 678 S.E.2d 592, 594 (2009) (citing State v. McCullers, 341 N.C. 19, 28-29, 460 S.E.2d 163, 168 (1995)). Whether the State has presented substantial evidence is a question of law, which we review de novo. State v. Cox, 367 N.C. 147, 150-51, 749 S.E.2d 271, 274-75 (2013) (citations omitted).

         The elements of kidnapping are defined by statute. See Ripley, 360 N.C. at 337, 626 S.E.2d at 292 ("The offense of kidnapping, as it is now codified in N.C. G.S. § 14-39, did not take form until 1975, when the General Assembly amended section 14- 39 and abandoned the traditional common law definition of kidnapping for an element-specific definition."). Section 14-39 now provides, in relevant part:

(a) Any person who shall unlawfully confine, restrain, or remove from one place to another, any other person 16 years of age or over without the consent of such person, or any other person under the age of 16 years without the consent of a parent or legal custodian of such person, shall be guilty of ...

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