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Habel v. State

Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals

March 16, 2018

Sara Courtney Habel
v.
State of Alabama

         Appeal from Madison Circuit Court (CC-16-2782)

          JOINER, Judge.

         Sara Courtney Habel was convicted of first-degree perjury, see § 13A-10-101, Ala. Code 1975, and was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.[1] Habel's sentence was split, and she was ordered to serve 30 days followed by 5 years' supervised probation. Habel was ordered to pay a $100 fine, a $100 crime-victims-compensation assessment, a $150 bail-bond fee, court costs, and attorney's fees.

         Facts and Procedural History

         The State's evidence at trial tended to show the following: In February 2015, Habel alleged that her husband, Matthew, had sexually abused their two children, M.H. and S.H. Habel and Matthew were involved in divorce proceedings when she made the allegations. Deputy Eugene Nash of the Madison County Sheriff's Department, who was assigned to the National Children's Advocacy Center ("NCAC"), initiated a criminal investigation. Because the allegations involved possession and production of child pornography, Deputy Nash informed Special Agent Troy McCarter of the United States Department of Homeland Security about the investigation.

         On March 16, 2015, Agent McCarter searched Matthew's house and seized several electronic devices. Agent McCarter testified that Matthew was distraught but extremely cooperative and that the search failed to uncover any evidence of child pornography. On April 6, 2015, Agent McCarter interviewed Habel; during the interview, he informed her that it was a crime to lie to law-enforcement officials. Habel then provided a sworn affidavit detailing her allegations against Matthew[2] and signed the affidavit in the presence of Agent McCarter and Special Agent Derrick Moore.[3]

         Habel's affidavit, which the State introduced as an exhibit, had a heading stating "Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, State of Alabama, County of Madison" and began with the statement, "I, Sara Courtney Habel, being duly sworn, state the following." (C. 108.) The affidavit was four pages in length. Habel initialed the first page and signed each subsequent page under a statement that read: "The contents of this statement are true and correct to the best of my knowledge and belief. I have provided the above statement freely and voluntarily without any threats or coercion." (C. 109-11.) Agent McCarter signed each page; his signature on the second, third, and fourth pages appeared under a statement that read: "Subscribed and sworn to me on 6 in the month of April in the year of 2015." (C. 109-11.) Pages two, three, and four were signed by the witness, Agent Moore.

         December Guzzo, a child-forensic-interview specialist with the NCAC, interviewed M.H. on February 9, 2015. Guzzo testified that, during that interview, M.H. did not "make any specific allegations about sexual abuse ... committed by her father." (R. 99.) Guzzo stated that during a second interview conducted on February 23, 2015, M.H. "pretty much disclose[d] almost right away."[4] (R. 103.)

         Beth Jackson, a therapist and program manager at the NCAC, treated M.H. from May 2015 through February 2016. Jackson testified:

"[M.H.] told me that her mom made her feel uncomfortable by asking her to lie about what daddy did. And I asked her what that lie was and she said, 'To say that he touched me.' I asked her, 'Where did you, did you say that he had to touch you?' And she said, 'On my privates and on my bottom.'"

(R. 108.)

         M.H., who was eight years old at the time of trial, testified that her father never touched her or S.H. inappropriately; that her father never touched himself inappropriately in front of her or S.H.; and that her father never showed her any "naked people" on his cellular telephone. M.H. stated that she had made up those allegations on her own and that Habel had not pressured her to lie about her father. When asked why she said her "dad had done that stuff, " M.H. shrugged her shoulders and responded that she did not know. M.H. testified that she did not want anyone to get in trouble.

         Matthew testified that he never touched M.H. inappropriately; that he never touched himself in front of her in an inappropriate manner; that he never discussed "masturbation, male or female, child porn, anything like that" with M.H. (R. 78); that he never viewed child pornography; and that he never viewed adult pornography in the presence of his children. Matthew testified that, during M.H.'s last visit with Habel, which occurred two days before the trial,

"[M.H.] stated that her mother asked her about the case and with, um, what she had talked about, uh, with the D.A. And [M.H.] said that she refused. She was asked again. And Sara [Habel] stated that--per [M.H.], Sara stated that, um, she wouldn't talk to her again if she did not tell her what she had talked about with the lawyers.
"[M.H.] told me that she stomped her foot and said, 'No, I'm not going to tell you and you will talk to me again.' And five or 10 minutes later [M.H.] said her mother talked to her again and she said, 'See, I told you you would talk to me again.'"

(R. 85.)

         After the State rested, Habel moved for a judgment of acquittal, and the circuit court denied her motion.

         Habel testified in her own behalf and stated that she believed the allegations of abuse. On direct examination by the defense, Habel testified as follows:

"Q. Let me ask you did you, did you, in fact, ask your daughter to lie about her father?
"A. I did not.
"Q. Did you give her information to say when she went in to talk to Ms. Guzzo or the second interview?
"A. No.
"Q. Did you threaten your daughter in any way if she didn't tell something in your behalf?
"A. No.
"Q. Or if she didn't tell something on her father?
"A. No.
"....
"Q. Okay. And we've heard some testimony today. Did you, in fact, talk to your daughter Sunday about her testimony here today?
"A. No.
"Q. Did you bring it up?
"A. No.
"Q. Did you ask her what [the prosecutor] said to her?
"A. No.
"Q. Did you have any intent to mislead [Agent] McCarter about what you wrote in ...

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