NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION.
Submitted September 16, 2013.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Atlantic County, Indictment No. 10-04-0845.
Joseph E. Krakora, Public Defender, attorney for appellant (Susan Brody, Deputy Public Defender on the brief).
James P. McClain, Acting Atlantic County Prosecutor, attorney for respondent (Julie H. Horowitz, Special Deputy Attorney General, Acting Assistant Prosecutor, of counsel and on the brief).
Before Judges Parrillo and Guadagno.
Tried by a jury, defendant Ruel Lawas was convicted of second-degree sexual assault, N.J.S.A. 2C:14-2(b), and third-degree child endangerment, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a). After merging the latter offense with the former, the court sentenced defendant to a five-year prison term, subject to an eighty-five percent parole disqualifier. All requisite fines and penalties were also imposed. Defendant appeals, and we affirm.
According to the State's proofs, in the summer and fall of 2009, defendant's six-year-old niece, J.G., slept over at the apartment defendant shared with his wife Liwaya and family approximately two or three times. According to J.G.'s mother, M.A.G., "a few days after the [last] sleepover, " sometime in October 2009, her daughter told her that "Uncle Ruel did an inappropriate thing to [me]." In particular:
the last time that [J.G.] slept over at Auntie [Liwaya]'s house with her brother, she woke up in the middle of the night and went to Auntie [Liwaya]'s room and Uncle Ruel . . . came out and was supposed to put her back in bed, and instead put her on the couch and straddled her and went back and forth . . . in the private area, stomach area.
M.A.G. had J.G. demonstrate what defendant did to her. J.G. got on top of her mother and rubbed back and forth, simulating a sex act.
It was not until late February 2010, that M.A.G. told her sister Liwaya about J.G.'s accusations, although she did not tell her husband, J.G.'s father, until March 2010. One week later, he reported the incidents to the Division of Youth and Family Services (Division). After receiving the complaint on March 21, 2010, a Division caseworker, Elisia Erman, visited J.G. at her home that same day and spoke with her and her family members individually. Erman then proceeded to defendant's residence where she spoke to defendant and his wife separately.
Erman also immediately contacted Detective Luke Ireland of the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office, Crimes Against Children Unit, who interviewed J.G. the next day, March 22, 2010. According to office protocol, Detective Ireland interviewed J.G. alone and the interview was videotaped.
During the interview, J.G. said that when she stayed at defendant's house, he "put his private spot on her private spot and pushed." Although she did not remember exactly when the incident occurred, she said it was last year, at the defendant's apartment. J.G. went on to say that defendant did this two times, "one was ...