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State v. White

Supreme Court of North Carolina

May 10, 2019


          Heard in the Supreme Court on 8 January 2019.

         On discretionary review pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous, unpublished decision of the Court of Appeals, __ N.C.App. __, 805 S.E.2d 563 (2017), finding no error in a judgment entered on 9 September 2015 by Judge J. Thomas Davis in Superior Court, Graham County.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by John F. Oates, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, for the State.

          Glenn Gerding, Appellate Defender, by Daniel Shatz, Assistant Appellate Defender, for defendant-appellant.


         The sole question presented by this appeal is whether the superseding indictment upon which defendant was tried and convicted was facially defective, and thus failed to establish jurisdiction in the trial court, because it identified the alleged victim only as "Victim #1." For the reasons stated below, we hold that an indictment identifying the alleged victim only as "Victim #1" fails to satisfy the statutory requirement that the indictment name the victim; and, therefore, the indictment is facially invalid. As a result, the trial court's judgment must be vacated.


         Beginning in December 2010, the victim, Hannah, [1] lived with her mother and defendant in defendant's trailer for a brief time when she was around seven years old. Hannah reported to her aunt in 2013 that defendant had molested her during her stay at the trailer. Defendant confessed in writing to sexually assaulting Hannah after Hannah's aunt reported the incident to the police. On 1 May 2013, an arrest warrant was issued, alleging probable cause to believe that defendant "unlawfully, willfully and feloniously did engage in a sex offense with [Hannah], a child under the age of 13 years." On the same day, defendant was arrested and charged with one count of first-degree sex offense with a child in violation of N.C. G.S. § 14-27.4A(1) (recodified as N.C. G.S. § 14-27.28(a) (2015)). A grand jury returned a true bill of indictment on this charge on 8 July 2013. On 18 May 2015, the grand jury returned a superseding indictment, which charged defendant with one count of sexual offense with a child by an adult, stating that he "engage[d] in a sexual act with Victim #1, a child who was under the age of 13 years, namely 7 years old," and added a new count of indecent liberties with a child, alleging that "[t]he name of the child is Victim #1." Both the arrest warrant and the original indictment identified Hannah by her full name.

         The case was tried at the 31 August 2015 session of Superior Court, Graham County, with the Honorable J. Thomas Davis presiding. On 9 September 2015, the jury returned a verdict finding defendant guilty of sexual offense with a child by an adult offender. The trial court imposed an active sentence of 300 to 369 months of imprisonment. On 17 October 2017, the Court of Appeals affirmed defendant's conviction in an unpublished opinion, State v. White, N.C. App., 805 S.E.2d 563, 2017 WL 4638188 (2017) (unpublished). Defendant petitioned this Court for review, arguing that the Court of Appeals erred by holding that an indictment that failed to identify the alleged victim was not facially invalid.

         Before the Court of Appeals, defendant argued that the superseding indictment upon which he was convicted was invalid because it identified the victim as "Victim #1" rather than naming the victim as the short-form indictment statute for the offense directs. White, 2017 WL 4638188, at * 2. The Court of Appeals held that the indictment was valid because the identity of the victim could be ascertained by reference to other documents in the record. Id. at *3 (relying on State v. McKoy, 196 N.C.App. 650, 657-58, 675 S.E.2d 406, 412, appeal dismissed and disc. rev. denied, 363 N.C. 586, 683 S.E.2d 215 (2009)).


         "A defendant can challenge the facial validity of an indictment at any time, and a conviction based on an invalid indictment must be vacated." State v. Campbell, 368 N.C. 83, 86, 772 S.E.2d 440, 443 (2015) (citing McClure v. State, 267 N.C. 212, 215, 148 S.E.2d 15, 17-18 (1966)). The sufficiency of an indictment is a question of law reviewed de novo. See, e.g., State v. Sturdivant, 304 N.C. 293, 307-11, 283 S.E.2d 719, 729-31 (1981).

         "[A] valid bill of indictment is essential to the jurisdiction of the trial court to try an accused for a felony." State v. Rankin, 371 N.C. 885, 886, 821 S.E.2d 787, 790 (2018) (alteration in original) (quoting Campbell, 368 N.C. at 86, 772 S.E.2d at 443). Generally, an indictment "is fatally defective if it 'fails to state some essential and necessary element of the offense of which the defendant is found guilty.'" State v. Ellis, 368 N.C. 342, 344, 776 S.E.2d 675, 677 (2015) (quoting State v. Gregory, 223 N.C. 415, 418, 27 S.E.2d 140, 142 (1943)). While "it is not the function of an indictment to bind the hands of the State with technical rules of pleading," State v. Williams, 368 N.C. 620, 623, 781 S.E.2d 268, 270-71 (2016) (quoting Sturdivant, 304 N.C. at 311, 283 S.E.2d at 731), the indictment must fulfill its constitutional purposes-to "identify clearly the crime being charged, thereby putting the accused on reasonable notice to defend against it and prepare for trial, and to protect the accused from being jeopardized by the State more than once for the same crime," Sturdivant, 304 N.C. at 311, 283 S.E.2d at 731 (citing Gregory, 223 N.C. 415, 27 S.E.2d 140).

         The General Assembly has the power "to relieve the State of the common law requirement that every element of the offense be alleged" in an indictment, State v. Lowe, 295 N.C. 596, 603, 247 S.E.2d 878, 883 (1978), "provided the form established is sufficient to apprise the defendant with reasonable certainty of the nature of the crime of which he stands charged." Id. at 603, 247 S.E.2d at 883 (quoting State v. Harris, 145 N.C. 456, 457-58, 59 S.E. 115, 116 (1907)). In particular, this Court has held that statutes authorizing short form indictments for rape and first-degree sexual offense "comport with the requirements of the North Carolina and United States Constitutions," even though they do not require each essential element of the offense to be alleged. State v. Wallace, 351 N.C. 481, 505, 528 S.E.2d 326, 342, cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1018, 121 S.Ct. 581, 148 L.Ed.2d 498 (2000). Furthermore, courts do not favor quashing an indictment. See, e.g., State v. Greer, 238 N.C. 325, 327, 77 S.E.2d 917, 919 (1953).

         Use of the Phrase "Victim #1" Does Not Constitute "Naming the Victim."

         "The goal of statutory interpretation is to determine the meaning that the legislature intended upon the statute's enactment." Rankin, 371 N.C. at 889, 821 S.E.2d at 792 (citing State v. Beck, 359 N.C. 611, 614, 614 S.E.2d 274, 276-77 (2005)). "Where the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no room for judicial construction and the courts must construe the statute using its plain meaning." Burgess v. Your House of Raleigh, Inc., 326 N.C. 205, 209, 388 ...

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