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The State of New Hampshire v. Patrick Eschenbrenner

February 8, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lynn, J.

a.m. on the morning of their release. The direct address of the court's home page is:

Argued: November 27, 2012

Pursuant to RSA 606:10, III(a) (2001), the State appeals an order of the Superior Court (Nadeau, C.J.) granting the defendant, Patrick Eschenbrenner, a new trial on three counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault, based on the court's conclusion that the attorneys who represented him at trial provided ineffective assistance of counsel. We reverse.


The following facts are drawn from the record of the trial and the hearing on the defendant's motion for a new trial. In October 1998, C.T., a nine year-old female, told her mother that the defendant had touched her genital area on numerous occasions. C.T.'s mother reported the allegations to the police, but four months elapsed before C.T. was interviewed by Officer Lori Stowell of the Raymond Police Department, who had never before conducted a child sexual assault investigation. After submitting a report of her February 1999 interview with C.T., Stowell did not pursue the investigation further.

Approximately seven years later, in 2006, Raymond Police Detective

Richard Labell re-opened the investigation of C.T.'s allegations. In accordance with policies and procedures developed subsequent to her 1999 interview with Stowell, C.T. was re-interviewed in 2006 at the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) by a specially trained interviewer while Labell observed from an adjacent room. Following the interview, Labell obtained a warrant for the defendant's arrest. In a post-arrest interview, the defendant denied that he had ever intentionally touched C.T.'s genital area. He was thereafter indicted on three counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault. See RSA 632-A:2, II (Supp. 2012).

The defense theory at trial was that C.T.'s allegations were not credible, and that if the defendant ever touched C.T.'s genitalia, he did so accidentally while playing games with her and his daughters. Thus, in his opening statement, defense counsel characterized C.T.'s accusations as a "story," said that if any touchings occurred, they were accidental, and emphasized that no official action was taken for many years after she first made her allegations.

The State presented four witnesses at trial: C.T., C.T.'s mother, Labell, and Stowell. C.T., who was eighteen years of age and a ninth-grade student at the time of trial, testified that when she was eight and nine years old she frequently went to her grandmother's house. The defendant was a neighbor of her grandmother, and C.T. would often play with the defendant's children. Sometimes the defendant would join in the play. C.T. described a game they played where the defendant threw the children into the air and then caught them and tickled them all over. C.T. indicated that during these games the defendant would touch her private area, which she described as the part of her body below the belt that she used "to go pee." Most of this touching occurred over her shorts, but on a couple of occasions the defendant touched her under her shorts but over her underwear, and on one occasion he touched her underneath her underwear.

C.T. said that she was uncomfortable and scared when the defendant touched her underneath her underwear and that she told the defendant that she wanted to stop playing because she had to go to the bathroom. C.T. said that, on this occasion, she left the defendant's house just as his wife was pulling into the driveway, and the defendant told C.T. not to tell anyone or she would get in trouble. C.T. ran home and told her mother what had happened.

C.T.'s mother took her to the police station where they spoke with an officer.

Approximately four months later, C.T. returned to the police station for a taped interview. C.T. said that, after this interview, she had no further contact with the police for a long time, and that "[e]verybody called me a liar, and the neighbors' kids, [the defendant's] kids, were telling me I was a home wrecker and I just wanted to take their daddy away." In 2006, Detective Labell contacted C.T. and arranged for her to be interviewed at the CAC.

On cross-examination, C.T. acknowledged that six or seven months after she told her mother about the defendant touching her, she resumed going to the defendant's house to play with his children, although she said she then usually played "outside away from the adults." She explained that she resumed going to the defendant's house "because everybody had convinced me that I was overexaggerating about it, it never happened, and it wasn't the way it was meant to be, so I went back . . . because they were my friends."

C.T.'s mother testified that her daughter had told her about being touched by the defendant, that she brought C.T. to the Raymond police station, that she later brought her to be interviewed in February 1999, and that thereafter she heard nothing from the police until Labell contacted her in 2006. On cross-examination, she admitted to being aware that C.T. continued to play at the defendant's house even after C.T.'s disclosure of the touchings and her February 1999 police interview.

Labell testified that he had extensive experience investigating crimes against children, described the CAC interview procedure, and explained that he had observed the interview of C.T. conducted at the CAC. He then testified as follows:

Q. Okay. And based on that interview, did you do anything next?

A. Yes, I did. Based on the interview, I obtained a warrant for the arrest of Mr. Eschenbrenner.

Labell then related what the defendant told him during a post-arrest interview conducted after being advised of his Miranda rights. See Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). The defendant described C.T. as the oldest freshman at Raymond High School and "not the brightest girl." He acknowledged that C.T.'s grandmother lived across the street from him, that he was aware C.T. had previously accused him of touching her, and that he knew the police had been called, although they never interviewed him. He also admitted that he played a game with C.T. called "airplane," during which he would catapult the child into the air, catch her when she came down, and then tickle her from her armpits down to her inner thighs. The defendant said that it was possible he may have touched C.T.'s private parts while catching her during these games, but he denied that he had ever done so intentionally. Labell described the defendant's demeanor during the interview as "defeated," and said that at one point the defendant said, "I'm toast. I'm going to jail. My wife's dying in the hospital. I'm being accused of rape and my daughters[] are going to be alone for a very long time." When Labell asked the defendant what he meant by rape, the defendant responded: "I have a girl that's accusing me of touching her, a cop that believes it, what do you think."

Stowell testified that she first became involved in the investigation of C.T.'s allegations in October 1998. She said that her investigation of C.T.'s allegations was her first sexual assault case, that her February 1999 interview with C.T. was "fairly short," and that she had never before interviewed a child alleged to be the victim of sexual assault. Stowell also said that, after the interview, she submitted her report and the interview tape, but did not speak to anyone else or conduct further investigation. On direct ...

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