State v. Wenthe, A12–0263.

Decision Date24 June 2015
Docket NumberNo. A12–0263.,A12–0263.
Citation865 N.W.2d 293
PartiesSTATE of Minnesota, Appellant, v. Christopher Thomas WENTHE, Respondent.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, MN; and John J. Choi, Ramsey County Attorney, Peter R. Marker, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney, Saint Paul, MN, for appellant.

Paul Engh, Minneapolis, MN, for respondent.

OPINION

ANDERSON, Justice.

Respondent Christopher Thomas Wenthe was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, Minn.Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l )(i) (2014), for sexually penetrating A.F.—a member of the parish where Wenthe served as a priest—at a single meeting at which A.F. sought spiritual counsel. Appellant State of Minnesota seeks review of three issues: (1) whether the district court committed plain error affecting Wenthe's substantial rights by failing to provide a specific-unanimity jury instruction; (2) whether the State was required to prove that Wenthe had knowledge that A.F. sought or received religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort at a meeting that also involved sexual penetration; and (3) whether the district court abused its discretion by denying Wenthe's motion to admit evidence of A.F.'s sexual history after it admitted the State's evidence of A.F.'s sexual inexperience. The court of appeals concluded the district court erred with respect to all three issues and that the cumulative effect of the errors necessitates a new trial. We reverse.

The facts underlying Wenthe's conviction are set forth in detail in State v. Wenthe (Wenthe II ), 839 N.W.2d 83 (Minn.2013), and so we only briefly recount them here. Wenthe was a Roman Catholic priest at a parish in Saint Paul. In the summer of 2003, Wenthe met A.F., who had recently started to attend the church at which Wenthe was a priest. A.F. soon confided in Wenthe about her personal struggles, including suffering sexual abuse as a child and suffering from bulimia. Over the next few months, Wenthe and A.F. developed a mentorship and friendship, spent time together in social contexts, and confided in each other about personal matters. A.F. also asked Wenthe to serve as her “regular confessor” in October 2003 and Wenthe heard A.F.'s confession at least once in that capacity.

On November 12, 2003, Wenthe and A.F. celebrated Wenthe's birthday at A.F.'s apartment. They talked for many hours about topics of religion and sexuality, and Wenthe testified that they also discussed past sexual experiences and sexual acts they would like to perform with each other.

The following evening, November 13, 2003, Wenthe and A.F. met at Wenthe's quarters in the church rectory. A.F. testified that she had a difficult session with her lay therapist earlier in the day, and Wenthe invited her to “call him after” her session if she needed spiritual guidance. Wenthe testified that they had simply agreed to get together that night. Both testified that Wenthe sexually penetrated A.F. for the first time that evening. They met again the following day to discuss what had happened the previous night. A.F. could not remember what they discussed, but she testified that Wenthe sexually penetrated her again. Wenthe denied engaging in sexual conduct that day.

Thereafter, Wenthe and A.F. continued a sexual relationship for approximately 1 year. A.F. testified that she still considered Wenthe to be her priest and viewed the relationship as centered on faith and spirituality. Wenthe testified that the relationship transformed “very quickly” into one based on sexual desire rather than spiritual guidance. The last sexual encounter was in February 2005. Later that year, a friend of A.F. reported the sexual relationship between Wenthe and A.F. to the archdiocese, but A.F. did not report the conduct to the police until 2010, when she learned that Wenthe had been assigned as the parish priest in Delano.

In 2011 the State charged Wenthe with two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct under the clergy sexual conduct statute, alleging that Wenthe had sexually penetrated A.F. at a single meeting at which A.F. had sought and received spiritual counsel, Minn.Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l )(i), and at ongoing meetings at which A.F. had sought and received spiritual counsel, id., subd. 1(l )(ii). At trial, the State introduced evidence of sexual penetration during at least two meetings between Wenthe and A.F., either of which could satisfy the single-meeting statute. The district court instructed the jury that their verdict must be unanimous, but the court did not tell the jurors that they must unanimously agree on the meeting at which Wenthe violated the statute.

The district court refused Wenthe's proposed jury instruction that Wenthe must know that he was providing spiritual counsel at a meeting at which he sexually penetrated A.F. The district court also denied Wenthe's pretrial motion to admit evidence of A.F.'s sexual history, stating the evidence was inadmissible under the rape-shield law. See Minn.Stat. § 609.347, subd. 3 (2014) ; Minn. R. Evid. 412. Although the State indicated it would limit sexual-history evidence to the sexual abuse suffered by A.F. as a child, at trial the State introduced evidence that A.F. was sexually inexperienced compared to Wenthe. During the trial Wenthe renewed his motion to admit evidence of A.F.'s sexual history, which was again denied.

The jury acquitted Wenthe of the “ongoing basis” clergy sexual conduct count, but found him guilty of the “single meeting” count. The district court convicted Wenthe of that count and sentenced him to 57 months in prison, stayed execution of the sentence subject to 12 months in the workhouse, and placed Wenthe on probation for 15 years.

The court of appeals reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial, concluding that the clergy sexual conduct statute, as applied in this case, violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. State v. Wenthe (Wenthe I ), 822 N.W.2d 822, 829–30 (Minn.App.2012). The State appealed and we reversed, holding that the clergy sexual conduct statute does not violate the Establishment Clause, either facially or as applied in this case. Wenthe II, 839 N.W.2d at 92, 95.

On remand to consider Wenthe's remaining challenges, the court of appeals again reversed and ordered a new trial. State v. Wenthe (Wenthe III ), 845 N.W.2d 222 (Minn.App.2014). First, the court concluded that the district court violated Wenthe's right to a unanimous verdict by failing to instruct the jury that it must unanimously agree on the specific meeting at which Wenthe violated the single-meeting clergy sexual conduct statute. Id. at 228–31. Next, the court held that the jury instructions erroneously omitted a requirement that the State prove Wenthe's knowledge with respect to the “spiritual counsel element of the statute. Id. at 231–33. Finally, the court determined that the district court erred by denying Wenthe's motion to admit evidence of A.F.'s sexual history after it allowed the State to introduce testimony indicating that A.F. was sexually inexperienced. Id. at 233–35. The court of appeals concluded that the cumulative effect of the trial errors deprived Wenthe of a fair trial. Id. at 235–36. We granted review of all three issues.

I.

First, the State asserts that the district court did not commit plain error affecting Wenthe's substantial rights by failing to provide a specific-unanimity jury instruction. The State added the single-meeting charge to the complaint the day trial began, alleging that Wenthe sexually penetrated A.F. in a single meeting at which A.F. sought spiritual counsel [o]n or between the 1st day of November, 2003 and the 31st day of December, 2003.” The State introduced evidence of sexual penetration occurring in at least two specific meetings during that timeframe, on November 13 and November 14, 2003, and A.F. testified that she and Wenthe engaged in sexual conduct approximately every two weeks thereafter. The prosecution stated in closing argument that the jury could use any of these meetings to satisfy the single-meeting statute:

The state ... has talked about many meetings where [A.F.] talked about receiving religious advice and comfort where there was sexual penetration, but, specifically, there's definitely that very first one [on November 13, 2003], the day she came from that counseling appointment. The time period for this charge is November 1st of 2003 to December 31st of 2003. So if there were any meetings where sexual contact occurred during the course of providing religious aid, comfort and advice, the defendant is guilty.

After closing arguments, the district court instructed the jury: “In order for you to return a verdict, whether guilty or not guilty, each juror must agree with that verdict. In other words, it has to be unanimous.” The court of appeals concluded that the district court erred by failing to provide a specific-unanimity instruction. In other words, the district court would have been required to state not only that the jury must unanimously agree that Wenthe violated the clergy sexual conduct statute, but also that the jury must unanimously agree on a specific meeting at which the statute was violated.

Because Wenthe did not request a specific-unanimity instruction or object to the unanimity instruction given, we review for (1) error, (2) that is plain, and (3) that affects Wenthe's substantial rights. State v. Griller, 583 N.W.2d 736, 740 (Minn.1998). If those three prongs are met, we consider whether the error must be addressed to ensure the “fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” State v. Crowsbreast, 629 N.W.2d 433, 437 (Minn.2001) (citing Johnson v. United States, 520 U.S. 461, 467, 117 S.Ct. 1544, 137 L.Ed.2d 718 (1997) ).

The State's charging decisions and presentation of evidence are very troubling. The State delayed charging the single-meeting offense until the day of trial and then alleged multiple violations of the single-meeting offense, occurring over the...

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