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State v. Ringstad

Court of Appeals of Utah

October 26, 2017

State of Utah, Appellee,
v.
Jeffrey Parnell Ringstad, Appellant.

         First District Court, Brigham City Department The Honorable Thomas Willmore No. 131100311

          Stephen W. Howard, Attorney for Appellant

          Sean D. Reyes and Christopher D. Ballard, Attorneys for Appellee

          Judge Michele M. Christiansen authored this Amended Opinion, in which Judges Gregory K. Orme and David N. Mortensen concurred. [2]

          AMENDED OPINION [1]

          CHRISTIANSEN, JUDGE.

         ¶1 Jeffrey Parnell Ringstad (Defendant) appeals his convictions for two counts of rape of a child, one count of object rape of a child, two counts of sodomy on a child, and three counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, all first degree felonies. We affirm.

         BACKGROUND[3]

         ¶2 Defendant married a woman (Mother) in September 2009. Defendant and Mother lived together with Mother's minor children-the victim (Victim) and her older sister (Sister).

         ¶3 In 2011, as the family was preparing to be "sealed" in an LDS temple, Mother asked Victim if she "felt worthy to go to the temple so [they] could have [their] forever family." According to Mother, Victim stated that she "felt like she was good but she didn't feel like everybody involved was [worthy]." Victim explained to Mother that "[Defendant] had been touching [her] inappropriately."

         ¶4 Mother confronted Defendant with Victim's allegations. Defendant denied sexually abusing Victim. Defendant suggested that "[Victim] was having nightmares, it must have been dreams, it wasn't true." Mother believed Defendant because he "was the man [she] was getting ready to go through the temple [with], he was a police officer, he was a firefighter." Mother and Defendant told Victim that she must have been dreaming because Defendant "would never do anything like that to [her]." Victim "went along with it."

         ¶5 Victim later testified that she "knew what had happened, . . . that [Defendant] was touching [her] and that they weren't dreams, " but she went along with Mother and Defendant because Defendant had threatened to divorce Mother. Victim wanted "an eternal family" and wanted Defendant and Mother to stay together.

         ¶6 In September 2013, Defendant disclosed to Mother that he was having an affair, and they separated in October 2013. Defendant moved to live with his new girlfriend.[4] About a week after Defendant moved out, Victim told a school counselor that Defendant had sexually abused her. Victim later testified that she told the counselor because she "was losing [her] forever family."

         ¶7 In November 2013, a detective interviewed Victim after she received a referral from the Division of Child and Family Services. During her interview with the detective, Victim alleged that on at least two separate occasions, Defendant had "tried to put his penis inside of her and that it hurt." The detective also met with Mother, who relayed an allegation by Sister that Defendant had "come into her bedroom and wanted to cuddle with her, " but Sister told him to get out.[5] The detective gave Sister an opportunity to make a written statement, but Sister did not make any disclosures regarding rape or other sexual abuse at that time. According to the detective, the witness statement form had "a disclaimer that tells people to make sure they fill that out honestly" and "if they fill it out and it's not honest, they could be charged with a crime."

         ¶8 Around that time, the detective also interviewed Defendant. A video recording of Defendant's interview was played for the jury at trial. In the recording, Defendant admitted that there were "a couple of incidents where [he and Victim] had some inappropriate touching." When the detective asked Defendant to explain "how [he] inappropriately touched [Victim], " Defendant explained, "I touched [Victim's] private areas with my hands and with my privates" "[t]wo or three" times.

         ¶9 In December 2013, a pediatric nurse physically examined both Victim and Sister. She testified that neither child's examination revealed any "trauma or . . . tearing or . . . scar tissue." The pediatric nurse explained that this was not unusual because "the body can . . . heal very quickly in that area."

         ¶10 Defendant was charged with two counts of rape of a child, one count of object rape of a child, two counts of sodomy on a child, and three counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child.

         Victim's Testimony

         ¶11 At trial, Victim testified that Defendant sexually abused her from the summer of 2011 through "June or July of 2013." The abuse occurred in Defendant's bedroom. According to Victim, Defendant called her "his baby girl" "[w]hile he was touching [her], " but he never called her that before the abuse began. Victim testified that there had been multiple instances of inappropriate touching, but she only testified with particularity about two instances.

         ¶12 Victim testified that the first instance had occurred in the early morning after Mother had gone to work. Defendant picked Victim up and carried her to his room, where he laid her on his bed and took off her clothes. Defendant took off his robe, revealing that he had no clothes on underneath. Victim had "no idea what was going on" and "was so scared." According to Victim, Defendant told her "if [she] ever told anyone what he was about to do, that he would get a divorce with [her] mom." Defendant then got on top of Victim and started touching her breasts with his hands. Defendant also licked her vagina. Defendant then "sat up and . . . tried to push his penis" into Victim's vagina. When Victim told him to stop, Defendant "reached over to his night stand drawer and pulled out a bottle of green jelly." Defendant squeezed some of the jelly "on his finger and . . . started rubbing [Victim's] vagina with it and then he tried to push his penis into [her] vagina again." Defendant pushed his penis into Victim's vagina "[a] little bit" and ultimately ejaculated "[o]n top of [her] vagina."

         ¶13 Victim testified that the second incident also occurred in the early morning while Mother was at work. Defendant again carried Victim from her room to his room, laid her on his bed, and took off her clothes. She testified that Defendant was again wearing a robe but that this time, he wore religious "garments" underneath the robe. Defendant asked Victim "if [she] wanted to make love." When Victim asked Defendant what that meant, he replied, "I'll show you." Defendant then "put his finger in [Victim] and started fingering [her]." Victim told Defendant that she "didn't want to do this, that it hurt too much." Defendant then "reached over to his night stand drawer and . . . grabbed the bottle of green jelly." Defendant set the bottle on the bed and started licking Victim's vagina. He then rubbed the jelly on Victim's vagina and his penis and "tried to put his penis in [her] [while] he kept grabbing [her] breasts and squeezing them." Victim testified that Defendant again put his penis inside her "[a] little bit" and that he ejaculated in her vagina. Defendant told Victim that "[she] had to go sit on the toilet for it to come out."

         ¶14 Victim further testified that she did not "call for help" or tell anyone because she did not want anyone to know about the abuse and because Defendant was her "first image of a father and [she] wanted to keep it that way. [She] wanted her forever family to be forever." In addition to the two specific instances that Victim described, she estimated that Defendant had touched her inappropriately more than ten times between the summers of 2011 and 2013, but she also testified it happened "sometimes once, twice a week."

         Sister's Testimony

         ¶15 In November 2013, while she was visiting her grandmother for Thanksgiving, Sister claimed, for the first time, that she had also been previously sexually abused by Defendant. Sister met with the detective a second time after the Thanksgiving holiday. Sister testified at trial that Defendant had raped her approximately thirty times from early 2011 to the summer of 2013. Sister testified that the rapes occurred in her downstairs bedroom.

         ¶16 According to Sister, "[f]or the first little while, [Defendant] would just come down in his . . . garments, " and "he would rub [her] back underneath [her] shirt." This happened for approximately six months. Sister testified that Defendant then started removing both his and Sister's clothes and raping her. Sister testified that the rapes were violent and that she would "try to fight and . . . kick and get away from him, " but Defendant "started putting belts around [her], around [her] arms so that [she] couldn't flail." Sister stated that Defendant would sometimes bring his own belt to bind her arms, but more often than not he used her belt. Defendant threatened to divorce Mother if Sister told anyone.

         ¶17 Sister acknowledged that she had told police that during the rapes, Defendant would sometimes "throw [her] around and grip on [her] hair." Sister also told police that Defendant would "spank [her] buttocks so hard that it [became] red and it hurt" and that the rapes caused her to bleed. And while Victim had testified that Defendant called her his "baby girl" when he abused her, Sister testified that Defendant never called her that.

         ¶18 Sister further acknowledged that during and after the alleged abuse, she maintained good grades and participated in extracurricular activities. She also admitted that after Victim had reported Defendant's abuse, Mother had asked Sister if Defendant had been abusing her, and Sister had replied that he had not.

         Mother's Testimony

         ¶19 Mother testified that although Victim told her in 2011 that Defendant had "been touching her inappropriately, " Mother believed Defendant when he denied abusing Victim because "[h]e was the man that [she] was married to and getting ready to be sealed to."

         ¶20 Mother testified that when she learned that Defendant was having an affair with his new girlfriend, her "world crumbled" and she had "suicidal thoughts." Mother stated, "We were sealed in the temple, he was supposed to be my eternal spouse [but] he's having an affair."

         ¶21 According to Mother, there was "no possible way" that Victim could have independently known about the bottle of green jelly that Defendant had used on her. Mother testified that Victim had "no access to the bedroom" and that Defendant "was a very private person" who always kept the bedroom door locked when he and Mother were not home. Mother testified that the bedroom door was closed when she and Defendant were home and that she never found Victim "poking" around in their bedroom.

         ¶22 Mother admitted that after Defendant moved in with his new girlfriend, she went to their house and confronted Defendant and pushed him. She stated that she was "[v]ery angry at that time."

         ¶23 Mother further testified that Victim "was a social butterfly" and that both Victim and Sister were "[a]s normal as teenagers can be." She stated that Defendant "had a closer relationship" with Victim because Defendant and Sister "butted heads." Lastly, Mother testified that both girls remained active in their extracurricular activities.

         Defendant's Mother's Testimony

         ¶24 Defendant's mother testified that she had stayed with the family during the summer of 2011 while she recovered from back surgery. She testified that she had not seen "anything that alarmed [her] in behaviors involving the children and [Defendant]" and that she did not see "any changes in any behaviors between the two girls and [Defendant]."

         ¶25 Defendant's mother testified that on one occasion after Defendant moved in with his new girlfriend, Mother went to the girlfriend's house and "took ahold of [Defendant] and just started shaking him." She also testified that Mother had stolen some of Defendant's property and that Mother had told her that she was "going to see that she got [Defendant's] annuity [from an accident] for her girls."

         Defendant's Testimony

         ¶26 Finally, Defendant testified. He denied ever raping either Victim or Sister. Defendant acknowledged that he had admitted in his interview with the detective that there had been some "inappropriate touching" between Victim and himself. In explaining what he meant by "inappropriate touching, " Defendant testified that "[t]here had been a couple of times that [Victim] had come into the bedroom and had climbed up in bed with [him] to snuggle" and that "she'd pull[ed] herself in really close to [him]." He testified that he was once lying on his side when Victim "started pulling herself back into [him] a little bit tighter, kinda scooching back in, trying to get close" and that she had "started rubbing up against [his] private areas with her back side." He clarified that by "back side" he meant her "buttocks area."

         ¶27 According to Defendant, he and Victim had been lying there for a few minutes when she "reached up and grabbed [his] hand and was kinda rubbing herself with it." He testified that Victim "then pushed [his hand] down towards her private area" and that "when [he] realized [his] hand touched her private area" he "pulled [his] hand away and responded to her, telling her that's not what we do, it's not a good thing." Defendant testified that his garments never came off and that Victim's clothes never came off. He testified that "there [was] skin-to-skin touching" when Victim "pushed [his] hand down toward her private area" and that his "hand actually touch[ed] her private areas underneath the clothing."

         ¶28 Defendant further testified that a similar incident occurred a few weeks later. He stated that after the second incident he told Victim, "[W]e don't do that, that's not the right thing. I love you, we don't do things like this." Defendant denied ever being "sexually aroused with [Victim]" and stated that the inappropriate touching "was [not] something that [he] intended to have happen" nor "something [he] wanted to have happen." Defendant testified that Sister's testimony was untrue and that he had never tied her up.

         ¶29 On cross-examination, the prosecutor asked Defendant "to explain how [his] penis touched [Victim's] private parts, " and Defendant replied, "I don't know." Defendant stated that Victim "had snuggled back into [him] and was grinding against [him], grinding into [his] private parts." Defendant stated that he did not tell Mother what had happened because he "knew that [she] would be very, very, very, very unhappy with any of it" and that he was trying to protect Victim. The prosecutor further asked Defendant, "So, [the detective] asked you if there was any inappropriate touching and you're telling me that you confessed to touching [Victim] in her private parts with her [sic] hands and your penis to protect [Victim] from her mother?" Defendant replied, "Yes." Defendant stated that he was initially willing to confess to a crime to protect Victim, but he was no longer worried about protecting her.

         ¶30 Defendant also testified that several years previously, he suffered "severe closed-head injuries" that required brain surgery. Defendant stated that he still suffers from short-term and long-term memory problems.

         ¶31 The jury convicted Defendant on all counts. He now appeals.

         ISSUES AND STANDARDS OF REVIEW

         ¶32 Defendant raises two principal issues on appeal. First, he contends that "the admission of evidence regarding other violent sexual crimes allegedly committed against a person other than the complaining witness was error that deprived [him] of his right to [a] fair trial." Second, he contends that "the prosecutor engaged in prosecutorial misconduct by repeatedly eliciting testimony and making argument regarding various religious matters not relevant to the charges, by arguing facts that were not in evidence, and by expressing his own personal opinion and personally disparaging [Defendant]." Defendant concedes that these issues were not preserved but asserts that we may reach their merits via the plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel exceptions to preservation. "The plain error standard of review requires an appellant to show the existence of a harmful error that should have been obvious to the district court." State v. Kennedy, 2015 UT App 152, ¶ 23, 354 P.3d 775 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). "An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law." State v. Clark, 2004 UT 25, ¶ 6, 89 P.3d 162.

         ¶33 Lastly, Defendant contends that "the cumulative effect of the several errors committed in the trial court deprived [him] of his right to a fair trial." "We will reverse a conviction under this doctrine when 'the cumulative effect of the several errors undermines our confidence . . . that a fair trial was had.'" State v. Lomu, 2014 UT App 42, ¶ 7, 321 P.3d 235 (omission in original) (quoting State v. Dunn, 850 P.2d 1201, 1229 (Utah 1993)).

         ANALYSIS

         I. ...


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