Danielle King said her affair was over. But on Nov. 23, 2015, her husband Keith King realized her sexual liaisons were continuing.
Looking through phone records, he noticed Danielle and her illicit lover Francisco Huizar III were still communicating – every day. Keith got so mad he picked up his daughter’s high chair tray and slammed it against a table. The noise startled his 2-year-old Elle Annemarie King, who was one room away with Danielle.
Over the next year, Keith thought the marriage was healing. Danielle, who has blond hair and a big smile, had been posting on Facebook about family trips and their joyful child.
But then he got a troubling clue from the OnStar system in Danielle’s car. In August 2016, she and Elle were supposedly driving back from Danielle’s parents’ house in Richmond, Virginia. She was running late, so Keith activated the OnStar system and noticed her car was going north on Interstate 95 when it should have gone south. It was headed to Alexandria, Virginia, where Keith knew Huizar had been in the past.
Danielle had retrieved Huizar from Virginia, dropped Elle off at home, and met Huizar at a hotel, according to a lawsuit.
In 2017, Keith sued Huizar for having sex with his wife and breaking up his marriage. A year later, Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson awarded Keith $8.8 million in punitive and compensatory damages from Huizar under a little-known state law.
Yes, people in North Carolina can sue an illicit lover for having sex with their spouse; it’s called criminal conversation. Or for breaking up their marriage; that’s alienation of affection.
North Carolina is one of six states with the laws — along with Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Utah. There are about 200 alienation of affection cases in North Carolina each year, according to North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts records.
“It’s been around forever,” said Adam Bull, who has argued several alienation of affection suits throughout his 30 years as a North Carolina attorney. “Most people probably understand the moral sense it’s wrong; they don’t understand they can be sued for it.”
After the $8.8 million suit, Huizar filed bankruptcy. Danielle and Keith still aren’t done with court. In November 2019, the Court of Appeals considered Danielle’s claim for primary custody of Elle Annemarie. The parties are awaiting the verdict.
‘Marriage on trial’
A fundamental step in these unusual adultery cases is “putting the marriage on trial,” said Kim Bonuomo, who represents defendants in these cases. To win, plaintiffs have to show they had a fairly stable marriage, and the illicit lover broke it up.
Plaintiffs use letters, photos, family vacations, and descriptions of their sexual activity to prove their marriage was stable before the intruder.
Keith’s evidence? He and Danielle volunteered and went to church together. They had sex. Danielle started a “Good Mommies Club” as a part of a Mommies United group on Facebook. She even thanked Keith for one of “the coolest jobs ever” with his BMX company on Facebook.
But he said Huizar changed everything. “My marriage was murdered. It was destroyed,” Keith said during an interview with WRAL in 2018. “What I’ve endured is, I compare it to like a nuclear bomb going off around my surroundings,” he told Good Morning America in 2018.
In many cases, it’s hard to discern how much of a role the intruder had in the marriage downfall. Bonuomo said she’s never seen a perfectly stable marriage before the affair.
And blaming the illicit lover gets even messier if there were multiple affairs.
“(Were they) the cause of the breakup of the marriage just because they were the last person (the spouse) had an affair with?” Bonuomo often wonders.
‘She’s my wife, man!’
On Jan. 19, 2017, five months after the clandestine trip to retrieve Huizar, Danielle told Keith that her parents were helping her rent an apartment. Huizar, she said, wasn’t even in the state.
The next day, Keith texted Danielle to ask her to watch Elle while he drove pain medication to his father. But Danielle said she couldn’t; the apartment bathroom lights were out, and she couldn’t fix the breaker.
Later in the day, Keith drove over to Danielle’s apartment to fix the breaker. But when he arrived, Huizar opened the door. Moments later, Huizar held Keith in a choke hold as Keith cried and pleaded, “She’s my wife, man! She’s my wife. That is my wife, man!”
Danielle stood back, catching it all on video.
Alienation of affection and criminal conversation cases can only be brought against an illicit lover — there’s no direct recourse against the spouse. But even though an adulterous spouse may not be sued, Bull said they may still get involved in the case.
“They sometimes end up settling with their spouses so they can leave their new boyfriend or girlfriend out of the picture.”
Bull says the law deters some people from committing adultery.
“I don’t agree with that,” Bonuomo said. “Ultimately, these cases don’t come up until the marriage is already over.”
In 1984, the North Carolina Court of Appeals successfully overturned alienation of affection in Cannon v. Miller, but then the Supreme Court reversed the ruling. In 2009, the General Assembly approved some limits to the law. The affair had to happen before the spouses separated, and the plaintiff has to sue within three years of the affair.
It’s unlikely that legislators will overturn the law; no North Carolina politician wants to be portrayed as disregarding the sanctity of marriage, Bonuomo said.
But she doesn’t find the adultery law, which implicates only the illicit lover, to fit in many cases.
“Usually, the marriage is already broken. It would be a very, very rare situation for the underlying marriage to reconcile at that point,” Bonuomo said.
And once there’s a lawsuit, she said the chances of reconciling the marriage can only get worse.
‘Rooted and Antiquated’
Alienation of affection and criminal conversation are non-statutory law derived from prior judicial decisions.
“It’s the belief of many practitioners that these torts are rooted and antiquated ways of thinking that women were considered to be the property of their husbands,” Bonuomo said.
But just because the law is old doesn’t mean it’s defunct, Bull said.
“Are they old? Yes. So are basic principles, like the statute of frauds. But does that mean they should be replaced or no longer serve a purpose? I would disagree with that. Otherwise, there’s not a remedy that’s available to the injured spouse,” Bull said.
Societal norms change, but the adultery law protects monogamous marriage, supporters say. Bull says people should keep monogamy and consent in mind when they’re dating.
“It’s in the initial process that you should be ferreting out, ‘Hey, is this person single?’” he said. “Before you go much past holding hands, my advice to you is that you pull out your phone, hit record, and make sure they (give consent.)”
Animosity and Acrimony
Following the $8.8 million ruling, Huizar filed bankruptcy. And in Dec. 2017, the Kings divorced.
On Nov. 13, 2019, the King love triangle appeared on the North Carolina Court of Appeals docket, but this time with a new plaintiff: Danielle. She brought a child support and custody appeal.
In January 2017, the District Court in Durham gave Danielle and Keith split custody of Elle Annemarie, but Danielle wants primary custody. She also claims Keith assaulted her and caused her emotional distress.
Bonuomo doesn’t expect alienation of affection cases to end smoothly.
“I just wonder about the animosity and the acrimony that continues to envelop the family long term when there is an alienation of affection case filed,” she said. “What bothers me is that some of these really keep the fabric of the family ripped apart.”