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State v. Wilfred H.

Supreme Court of West Virginia

June 15, 2018

State of West Virginia, Plaintiff Below, Respondent
Wilfred H., Defendant Below, Petitioner

          Randolph County 14-F-117


         Petitioner Wilfred H.[1], by counsel Jeremy B. Cooper, appeals his August 3, 2016, conviction on five counts of first degree sexual assault, one count of display of obscene matter to a minor, and two counts of third degree sexual assault. Respondent State of West Virginia, ("State") by counsel Sarah B. Massey, filed a response in support of the circuit court's order. Petitioner filed a reply and, by leave of this Court, respondent filed a sur-reply.[2]

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standards of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         In October of 2014, petitioner was indicted by a Randolph County Grand Jury on thirty-seven counts of first degree sexual assault; twenty-three counts of third degree sexual assault; and two counts of display of obscene matter to a minor. The indictment alleged that over the course of four years, petitioner committed a "series of sexual acts" upon M.A.H., beginning when M.A.H. was nine years old. In 2012, when M.A.H. was thirteen years old, she disclosed the alleged abuse in a note directed to a classmate that was intercepted by school personnel. During the investigation into M.A.H.'s allegations, she identified petitioner as her abuser. Petitioner was interviewed and, at the request of law enforcement officers, provided several of his electronic devices, including his cellular telephone, for analysis. Subsequently, petitioner's electronic devices were sent to the State Police Crime Lab, where two grainy photographs, both depicting a different young nude female, one of which was believed to be M.A.H., were discovered.

         During pre-trial proceedings, petitioner sought leave of court to cross-examine M.A.H. as to her sexual history, in exception to the rape shield law. Petitioner reasoned that given the physical evidence that M.A.H.'s hymen was not intact, he was permitted to cross-examine her on the subject of whether she had engaged in sexual activity with other persons, which could provide an alternate explanation for her hymen that did not involve petitioner. Further, petitioner noted that the victim had made a statement on social media regarding the age of her oldest sexual partner and identified that partner as being seventeen years of age. Petitioner alleged that this statement was a party admission and demonstrated that the victim was untruthful in her statements that she had sex with petitioner, who was well over the age of sixteen.

         Following a September 30, 2015, hearing, the court allowed petitioner additional time to gather relevant evidence in support of his motion. At the second hearing, on January 15, 2016, petitioner indicated that he did not have any additional evidence or arguments. Thereafter, the court determined that evidence establishing that M.A.H.'s hymen was not intact was not tantamount to evidence that M.A.H. had sex with other individuals, nor was it evidence that M.A.H. had sex with petitioner. By order dated February 10, 2016, the circuit court denied petitioner's motion to permit cross-examination of M.A.H. regarding this issue.

         On February 23, 2016, the State filed a supplemental witness disclosure identifying Corporal Loudin, a veteran West Virginia State Police officer and member of the Crimes Against Children Unit, as an expert witness on the issue of protocol and interviewing techniques of child assault victims. In response to this supplemental disclosure, petitioner moved the court, in limine, to determine the admissibility of such testimony. On May 23, 2016, the circuit court held a hearing on petitioner's motion and ruled that Corporal Loudin could provide the anticipated expert testimony. However, the court noted that Corporal Loudin was specifically "precluded from offering testimony as to the truth of M.A.H's responses."

         During the course of discovery, the State filed a notice of intent to use evidence pursuant to Rule 404(b) of the West Virginia Rules of Evidence. Specifically, the State sought to introduce both the testimony of E.W., a prior alleged victim of petitioner, and a photograph found on petitioner's cellular telephone depicting another young nude female who was not the victim herein. A hearing was held on the State's notice on March 24, 2016, during which, E.W., a childhood friend of petitioner's eldest daughter, testified that petitioner "had touched her inappropriately [upon the breasts] one time when she was around the age of ten or eleven." E.W. testified that petitioner advised her that in payment for picking her up and transporting her to his home to play with his daughter, he was permitted to touch her breasts. In response to E.W.'s testimony, petitioner called his daughter and another individual as rebuttal witnesses. After hearing the evidence and the arguments of counsel, the court found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that petitioner committed acts against E.W. and that the relevancy of her anticipated testimony outweighed the prejudicial effect. By order dated April 1, 2016, the court granted, in part, and denied, in part, the State's notice of intent by permitting the testimony of E.W. and prohibiting the introduction of the photograph.

         The trial of petitioner's case began on January 28, 2016. Following jury deliberations, the foreman advised the circuit court that the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict and was deadlocked. The court declared a mistrial and scheduled jury selection for a second trial to begin on April 12, 2016. The second trial began on August 1, 2016. Under direct examination, M.A.H. testified that from ages nine through thirteen, she spent most weekends at petitioner's home and was close to petitioner's daughter. M.A.H. provided explicit details regarding petitioner's actions and testified that petitioner took photos of her in the nude. M.A.H. was then shown a photograph of a nude child and identified herself as the child in the photograph. Over petitioner's objection, the photograph was published to the jury, but was not admitted as evidence.

         During the presentation of its case-in-chief, the State called Trooper Hevener of the West Virginia State Police to testify regarding the electronic devices removed from petitioner's home. Under cross-examination, Trooper Hevener acknowledged that the electronic devices were returned to him from the State Police Crime Lab after testing and sat unguarded on his desk for a period of approximately five months. The State then rested its case-in-chief. The court subsequently sequestered the jury and counsel for petitioner made a motion for a mistrial, arguing that the two photographs discovered on petitioner's electronic device were not "charged in the indictment" and the chain of custody for petitioner's electronic devices, on which the photographs were discovered, could not be established. The circuit court denied petitioner's motion and reasoned that the victim identified one of the photographs in her testimony; however, the court acknowledged that the chain of custody for the electronic devices had not been established. Accordingly, the court advised the parties that the jury would be instructed to disregard the photo.

         Petitioner then presented three motions for judgment of acquittal. The motions were based on petitioner's "incredible" testimony, insufficient evidence as to elements of obscenity, and insufficient evidence as to all counts based on the State's failure to prove petitioner's age. The court found that the victim testified that there had been sexual intercourse during the times alleged in the indictment and several of the State's witnesses had testified as to petitioner's age. As to the claims that the State offered insufficient evidence to sustain the obscene matter charge, the court found that the victim's description of the photograph was sufficient evidence. Accordingly, the court denied each of petitioner's motions for judgment of acquittal.

         The jury returned to the courtroom and a curative instruction was read by the court. In that instruction, the court advised the jury that the chain of custody "was not met" with respect to the photograph and instructed the jury to "totally disregard anything concerning the cell or the picture of the cell phone or her identity of this picture. That is no longer part of this case."[3] Immediately prior to the jury's deliberation, the court again instructed the jury to "[d]isregard entirely questions and exhibits to which an objection was sustained and answers or exhibits stricken out of evidence. Do not draw any inferences therefrom or speculate as to the matters hereby hinted."

         On August 3, 2016, petitioner was convicted of five counts of first degree sexual assault, one count of display of obscene matter to a minor, and two counts of third degree sexual assault. The jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict as to the remaining forty-nine counts of the indictment. On August 13, 2016, petitioner filed post-trial motions, including a renewed motion for mistrial. On November 10, 2016, the court held a hearing on post-trial motions, and by subsequent order, dated March 17, 2017, all post-trial motions were denied by the court. The court found that petitioner "received a fair trial" and noted that the court did "not believe that the [post-trial] motions raise issues which would cause the court to grant the relief requested." It is from his August 3, 2016, conviction that petitioner now appeals.

         On appeal, petitioner asserts ten assignments of error, which we will address in turn. However, we generally note that

[i]n reviewing challenges to findings and rulings made by a circuit court, we apply a two-pronged deferential standard of review. We review the rulings of the circuit court concerning a new trial and its conclusion as to the existence of reversible error under an abuse of discretion standard, and we review the circuit court's underlying factual findings under a clearly erroneous standard. Questions of law are subject to a de novo review.

Syl. Pt. 3, State v. Vance, 207 W.Va. 640, 535 S.E.2d 484 (2000).

         In his first assignment error, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in denying his motion for a mistrial. We have long held that

[t]he decision to declare a mistrial, discharge the jury and order a new trial in a criminal case is a matter within the sound discretion of the trial court. A trial court is empowered to exercise this discretion only when there is a 'manifest necessity' for discharging the jury before it has rendered its verdict. This power of the trial court must be exercised wisely; absent the existence of manifest necessity, a trial court's discharge of the jury without rendering a verdict has the effect of an acquittal of the accused and gives rise to a plea of double jeopardy.

State v. Lowery, 222 W.Va. 284, 288, 664 S.E.2d 169, 173 (2008) (citations omitted).

         Petitioner contends that the circuit court erred in failing to declare a mistrial when an inherently prejudicial photograph depicting a young nude female, purported to be the victim, was published to the jury. The State argues that the circuit court did not err in refusing to declare a mistrial following publication of the subject photograph, as the victim identified herself as the young female in the photograph so published and as petitioner was not charged related to the photograph itself. Based upon our review of the record, we agree with the State. Here, the court, as was within its sound discretion, sustained petitioner's trial objection regarding the publication of the photograph and read a curative instruction to the jury that specifically advised the jury not to consider such evidence. Under the limited facts and circumstances of this case, as the circuit court provided a curative instruction to the jury related to the publication of the photograph at issue, without ...

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