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State v. Ditenhafer

Supreme Court of North Carolina

November 1, 2019


          Heard in the Supreme Court on 10 April 2019.

         Appeal pursuant to N.C. G.S. § 7A-30(2) from the decision of a divided panel of the Court of Appeals, 812 S.E.2d 896 (2018), finding no error in part and reversing in part judgments entered on 1 June 2015 by Judge Paul G. Gessner in Superior Court, Wake County. On 20 September 2018, the Supreme Court allowed the State's petition for discretionary review of additional issues.

          Joshua H. Stein, Attorney General, by Sherri Horner Lawrence, Assistant Attorney General, for the State-appellant.

          Jarvis John Edgerton, IV for defendant-appellee.

          HUDSON, Justice.

         Here we must decide whether the Court of Appeals erroneously determined that the trial court erred by denying defendant's motion to dismiss charges of felonious obstruction of justice and accessory after the fact to sexual activity by a substitute parent. After careful consideration of the record in light of the applicable law, we affirm in part and reverse in part the Court of Appeals' decision, and remand this case to that court to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to enhance the charge of obstruction of justice for denying access to Jane from a misdemeanor to a felony under N.C. G.S. § 14-3(b).

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         A. Factual Background

         Defendant Mardi Jean Ditenhafer is the mother of Jane, born on 27 November 1996, and John, born in September 2004.[1] William Ditenhafer began living with defendant and Jane when Jane was five years old. When Jane was in the third grade, Mr. Ditenhafer adopted her. After Jane started middle school, defendant began working outside of the home during the week and was away from the home "almost . . . all day." As a result, Mr. Ditenhafer was left alone with Jane and John.

         When Jane was in the eighth grade, she began e-mailing sexually suggestive pictures to a boy. After defendant and Mr. Ditenhafer learned about these images, defendant threatened to call the police if Jane engaged in similar conduct in the future.

         When Jane was fifteen years old, defendant and Mr. Ditenhafer decided that Mr. Ditenhafer would give Jane weekly full-body massages for the ostensible purpose of improving her self-esteem. After one of these massages, Mr. Ditenhafer sent Jane to take a shower. As Jane walked to her room wearing only a towel following her shower, Mr. Ditenhafer called her into the living room, where he displayed additional sexually suggestive pictures that Jane had sent to the same boy as earlier, and told Jane that either he would show the new pictures to defendant or Jane could "help him with his . . . boner." Fearing he would tell her mom about the photos, Jane complied with his instructions to discard the towel and sit next to him; Mr. Ditenhafer then guided Jane's hand to his penis until he ejaculated.

         After a couple of weeks of similar behavior, Mr. Ditenhafer began compelling Jane to perform oral sex upon him. Jane did not tell defendant about the abuse because she "didn't think [defendant] would believe [her] and [ ] would get angry at [her] for making up a lie." Once Jane reached the age of sixteen, Mr. Ditenhafer engaged in vaginal intercourse with her on multiple occasions.

         During her ninth-grade year, Jane visited her aunt in Phoenix, Arizona. Jane told her aunt, Danielle Taber, that Mr. Ditenhafer had been sexually abusing her. When Jane and Ms. Taber called defendant to inform her about the ongoing abuse, defendant became angry at Jane. Even so, Ms. Taber called the local police, who began an investigation. On 9 April 2013, the Arizona law enforcement agency investigating Jane's allegations notified the Wake County Sheriff's Office about the sexual abuse that Jane was alleging.

         Jane returned to North Carolina two days after her conversation with Ms. Taber. As they returned home from the airport, defendant told Jane that she did not believe her allegations and stated that Jane needed to "tell the truth and recant . . because it was going to tear apart the family and it was just going to end horribly." Subsequently, defendant tried to have Jane admitted to a mental health facility and told John that "Your sister's crazy," and that the family "need[ed] to get her help."

         In the aftermath of Jane's return to North Carolina, defendant continued to urge Jane to "tell the truth because [Jane] was tearing apart her family," warned that "[Mr. Ditenhafer] was going to go to jail because of [her] lies," said that "[John] was going to turn into a drug addict and drop out of high school" because of what Jane was doing, and called Jane "a manipulative bitch." Defendant prevented Jane from talking to her Arizona relatives until Jane "called up [her] aunts and told them that [she] was lying." In addition, defendant threatened to call off a trip to Disneyland if Jane did not recant, stating that "Disney is not going to happen because we're going to lose our money" and that, "if you recant and tell the truth, . . . then we can go to Disney." In the same vein, defendant claimed that the family would "lose our stuff and the animals" if Jane did not recant. Finally, defendant told Jane that defendant might have breast cancer and that Jane "needed to stop this" because it was making the stress that she was experiencing as a result of her possible malignancy worse.

         As a result of the ongoing investigation into Jane's allegations, Mr. Ditenhafer left the family home and Jane began meeting with Susan Dekarske, a social worker with the Wake County Child Protective Services Division of Wake County Human Services. Defendant was usually present or "in listening distance" during these meetings. On 21 June 2013, Detective Stan Doremus of the Wake County Sheriff's Office and Ms. Dekarske interviewed Jane at the family home. According to Detective Doremus, defendant had her hand on Jane's thigh "virtually the whole time." Detective Doremus indicated that Jane "didn't say a whole lot" because, "as soon as [she] opened her mouth to talk, Defendant would answer the questions." In the course of this interview, defendant told Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske that "there is some truth to everything that [Jane] is saying but not all of it is true."

         On 11 July 2013, defendant allowed Jane to meet with Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske alone because defendant thought that Jane intended to recant her accusations against Mr. Ditenhafer. Prior to the meeting, defendant told Jane to tell Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske that she had "made it all up" because she "just wanted [Mr. Ditenhafer] out of the house" and "was just angry at everyone." At the meeting, however, Jane told Detective Doremus and Ms. Dekarske that "[m]y mom thinks I'm in here to recant, but I'm not because I'm telling the truth" and that she did not "know what to do because I can't take it at home anymore."

         As the meeting progressed, defendant began sending text messages to Jane in which she inquired "what's going on, are you almost done[?]"As Detective Doremus and Jane discussed certain e-mails that Mr. Ditenhafer had sent Jane, defendant entered the room and interrupted the interview with a "smirk on her face." At that point, Detective Doremus told defendant that "I'm not sure what you thought [Jane] was going to tell us, but she didn't recant" and showed defendant the e-mails that had been exchanged between Mr. Ditenhafer and Jane. In response, defendant became angry, stated that "it doesn't explain anything," and departed abruptly, taking Jane with her.

         As a result of the pressure that she was receiving from various family members, including John, Jane decided to recant her accusations against Mr. Ditenhafer. In essence, Jane "didn't want to lose [John, ] so [she] recanted."

         On 5 August 2013, Ms. Dekarske went to the family home to conduct a regular home visit. As Ms. Dekarske was departing at the conclusion of the visit, Jane ran from the house and told Ms. Dekarske, "I just want to let you know I am recanting my story and I'm making it all up." Ms. Dekarske described Jane's recantation as "very robotic and boxed in" and stated that her comments appeared to have "been rehearsed for her to say."

         On 7 August 2013, Jane called Detective Doremus while defendant listened on a separate line. According to Detective Doremus, it sounded as if two people were already talking when he answered the phone. Almost immediately, Jane stated, "I wish to recant my story." On 21 August 2013, Jane sent an e-mail to Detective Doremus that defendant had helped her to compose in which she recanted her accusations against Mr. Ditenhafer. As a result of this e-mail exchange, Detective Doremus set up a meeting with Jane.

         On 29 August 2013, Mr. Doremus met with Jane at her school in an attempt to avoid any interruptions by or confrontations with defendant. At that meeting, Jane told Detective Doremus, "I can't talk to you. I need to call my mom. . . . I'm not talking to you." Jane then called defendant and told her about the meeting. Defendant later told Jane that she was proud of Jane for not saying anything to Detective Doremus.

         As a result of Jane's recantation and various other factors, including defendant's desire for family reunification, Detective Doremus elected to refrain from charging Mr. Ditenhafer with committing any criminal offenses against Jane and Ms. Dekarske closed her child protective services ...

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