Supreme Court upholds attempted obstruction of justice charge

The Indiana Supreme Court said it didn’t matter whether the statements made by a defendant in a letter he wrote to the mother of a child victim he molested were true, the man still was deserving of the attempted obstruction of justice conviction.

The court said Newland McElfresh wrote the letter in an attempt to influence the child into changing her prior allegations against him before the court accepted his guilty plea.

McElfresh was charged with 12 counts of various sex offenses including child molesting, performing sexual conduct in the presence of a minor, vicarious sexual gratification and attempted child solicitation. The allegations were made by three young girls, all under 14 when the incidents occurred.

Two years later, McElfresh filed a plea agreement, agreeing to plead guilty to three counts of Class C felony child molesting. However, before the plea hearing, McElfresh wrote a letter to one of the victim’s mothers, whom he had known for a long time. He said in the letter that the victim was lying, that he never touched her, and that the mother should talk to the victim and get the truth out of her.

The mother contacted the prosecutor, who then added Class D felony attempted obstruction of justice to McElfresh’s charges, of which he was convicted. He appealed his convictions and sentence and the Indiana Court of Appeals found for him, saying that all McElfresh said was if the child was to lie under oath, she would face legal consequences of dishonesty. “We cannot believe that in the State of Indiana it can constitute a crime to make a true statement, even if the subject matter of the true statement involves the future testimony of a witness in a criminal proceeding,” the COA wrote in McElfresh v. State, 40 N.E. 3d 1259, 1262 (Ind. Ct. App. 2015).

Justice Steven David wrote the opinion in the decision and said McElfresh’s claim that there was insufficient evidence to support his obstruction of justice conviction is not true. “A reasonable trier of fact could have found that McElfresh committed each element of attempted obstruction of justice,” David wrote.

He also said the Indiana Court of Appeals’ statement about the true statement was overly broad and that in some circumstances, it is possible for a true statement to be threatening or coercive under the obstruction of justice statute. While the language in the letter McElfresh sent did not threaten physical violence, the threatened consequences had a similar effect to that on the parent. The mother even testified she was fearful for her child.

David also said the trial court failed to consider a mitigating factor, but the error was harmless. The court did not take into account volunteer classes McElfrsh took, but David said even taking that into account, with McElfresh’s criminal history, no damage was done.
The court then instructed McElfresh’s conviction for invasion of privacy be vacated, and a conviction on attempted invasion of privacy entered. McElfresh should be resentenced on that charge, but both sentences should run concurrently to his sentence in a separate cause.

The case is Newland McElfresh v State of Indiana, 32S01-1511-CR-667.

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