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State v. Roberts

Court of Appeals of Utah

January 10, 2019

State of Utah, Appellee,
Chad Jacob Roberts, Appellant.

          Fourth District Court, Provo Department The Honorable Thomas Low No. 161401733

          Michael D. Esplin, Attorney for Appellant

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

          Judge Jill M. Pohlman authored this Opinion, in which Judges Michele M. Christiansen Forster and Diana Hagen concurred.


          POHLMAN, JUDGE:

         ¶1 Chad Jacob Roberts appeals his conviction for aggravated sexual abuse of a child and also seeks a remand under rule 23B of the Utah Rules of Appellate Procedure. We affirm Roberts's conviction and deny his motion for a rule 23B remand.


         Sexual Abuse, Disclosure, and Investigation

         ¶2 Victim is the adoptive sister, and natural cousin, of Roberts. After their biological father relinquished his parental rights, Victim and her two older siblings (Sister and Brother) were adopted by Roberts's mother (Mother).[2] Roberts would frequently visit the house where Mother and Victim lived and would "cuddle" with Victim and Sister and read them books at bedtime. Often, Roberts would "fall asleep with them in the bed."

         ¶3 Once, when Victim was about seven years old and Roberts was in his mid-twenties, Roberts lay in Victim's bed and touched her vagina "skin-to-skin." He "cuddled up against [her] . . . with his body pressed against [her] back" and then "put his hand down [her] underwear." Roberts "patted" Victim's vagina "a few times" and then "just rested [his hand] there" before resuming patting. This pattern continued for about thirty minutes. Eventually, Victim "got out of bed and went in the bathroom" because she "did not like what was happening." Thinking that Roberts had fallen asleep, Victim crawled back into her bed. Again, Roberts "cuddled up against [her] and put his hand down [her] pants." He did not say anything to Victim, or try to kiss or digitally penetrate her.

         ¶4 Because she "still loved and cared about" Roberts and was "happy living at" Mother's house, Victim "decided [she] was never going to tell anyone" what had happened that night. Then, nearly ten years later, she disclosed the touching to Brother and his fiancée (Fiancée). Victim had moved out of Mother's house and was living with her father, who testified that, prior to the move, Victim "was struggling" and had received treatment for "self-harming behaviors." While Victim was visiting Mother's house one day, she and Brother started drinking alcohol mixed with an energy drink. Brother and Fiancée mentioned to Victim that they planned on "getting a place" with Roberts. This made Victim fear that Roberts would abuse Fiancée. Victim then became "very drunk," and Brother and Fiancée took her to the mall to "walk it off." While there, Victim became "hysterical," "[fell] over in the parking lot," and repeated "over and over" that Roberts had raped her. Once she calmed down, Victim explained to Brother and Fiancée that Roberts "used to come lay in bed with her and touch her at night," but she did not offer any more details.

         ¶5 After this disclosure and a report made by Brother, police interviewed Roberts. Roberts admitted that he would sleep in Victim and Sister's bunkbed and "cuddle with them," but he denied ever touching Victim inappropriately. The police investigator asked whether on the night in question he could have touched Victim's vagina "accidentally," and Roberts responded, "Possibly," but denied that it would have been for sexual gratification.


         ¶6 At trial, the defense called Mother, who testified that Roberts and Victim had a "[l]oving, caring" relationship. She also testified that, although Roberts would cuddle with Victim and Sister, their room was not far from hers and their doors were "[a]lways open." On cross-examination, the prosecutor asked Mother whether she was ever interviewed by the Division of Child and Family Services (DCFS) "about [her] being emotionally abusive to" Victim. After Mother testified that she was aware of an accusation of emotional abuse but was not interviewed by DCFS, defense counsel objected to the line of questioning on relevance grounds. The trial court sustained the objection, and the prosecutor moved on to another topic.

         ¶7 Later, during closing argument, the prosecutor twice stated that Roberts's penis was "pressed up against" Victim's buttocks as he lay with her. The second time, after the prosecutor said that Roberts was "spooning with his front pushed against [Victim's] back with his penis around her buttocks," defense counsel objected. The trial court sustained the objection and explained to the jury that there was no evidence in the record of the "relative positions" of Roberts and Victim. The prosecutor then told the jury that it could use its "common sense understanding" to infer the relative positions of Roberts and Victim as they lay in the bed. Defense counsel did not renew the objection or ask the court to take any further action.

         ¶8 The defense's strategy at trial was to focus on Roberts's lack of sexual intent rather than attack the credibility of Victim, who had testified emotionally about the abuse. Roberts, who testified at trial, admitted that he cuddled with Victim and Sister and that he told police that he may have touched Victim's vagina accidentally, but he denied touching her with any sexual intent. In his closing argument, defense counsel stated that he did not think Victim was lying, and that the jury could believe both Victim and Roberts and still find Roberts not guilty. Counsel emphasized the isolated nature of the incident and argued that, because he did not have "the specific intent to arouse or gratify somebody's sexual desire," Roberts was not guilty.

         ¶9 At the close of evidence, the State asked the trial court "to expand [by one year] the time frame that was originally pled" in the information. Without hearing "much of an opposition" to such an amendment, the trial court granted the request. After being given instructions, including an instruction that counsel's "statements and arguments are not evidence," the jury retired to deliberate. When it returned, the jury convicted Roberts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child. Roberts appeals.


         ¶10 Roberts raises several issues on appeal that can be separated into three categories. First, Roberts contends that the prosecutor made improper statements during closing argument that warranted a mistrial or a limiting instruction. Defense counsel did not request these remedies at trial, and Roberts asks us to review this unpreserved issue under the doctrines of plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel.[3] See State v. Johnson, 2017 UT 76, ¶ 19, 416 P.3d 443 (explaining that plain error and ineffective assistance of counsel are exceptions to the preservation requirement). A trial court plainly errs when it commits obvious, prejudicial error. See State v. Griffin, 2016 UT 33');">2016 UT 33, ¶ 17, 384 P.3d 186. "An ineffective assistance of counsel claim raised for the first time on appeal presents a question of law." Id. ¶ 16 (quotation simplified).

         ¶11 Second, Roberts contends that the prosecutor's inquiry of Mother about a DCFS investigation constituted prosecutorial misconduct and that defense counsel was constitutionally ineffective for not objecting sooner and moving to strike the ...

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