Friday, June 20, 2008

Court decision: Man sentenced to 150 years for rape, jury not allowed to hear evidence of his accuser's two questionable prior rape claims

If a man is found not guilty of rape and it turns out he had prior rape claims against him that the jury never heard about, there is usually an outcry bemoaning the fact that a "rapist" has escaped punishment.

Why is there no similar outcry when a man is found guilty of rape and the jury was not permitted to hear about prior questionable rape claims made by his accuser? That's what happened in a California Court of Appeal decision issued this week, People v. Tidwell, 2008 Cal. App. LEXIS 920 (June 17, 2008). Michael Tidwell was sentenced to state prison for 150 years to life plus one year for purportedly raping a 21-year-old deaf woman in 2005. I do not suggest that Mr. Tidwell is, or isn't, innocent. But evidence of two prior possibly false accusations of rape made by Mr. Tidwell's accuser were held not admissible.

Mr. Tidwell claimed that the accuser consented to the sex acts they engaged in. There was evidence that Mr. Tidwell was flirting with her prior to the alleged rape. The accuser never told Mr. Tidwell she did not want to have sex, and during his acts, he wrote the question on a note, “Do you like it yes or no.” She circled yes. Therafter, she accepted a ride to work from Mr. Tidwell and did not get out of his car immediately upon arriving in the parking lot where she worked. Before getting out of the car, she agreed with Mr. Tidwell that she would call or text him.

At trial, Mr. Tidwell filed a motion claiming that the accuser had made two prior false complaints of rape. He sought a ruling from the court allowing him to introduce evidence of the prior complaints during the trial. Here is the evidence of the prior false claims:

Prior incident number one: In February, 2000, the accuser allegedly told a police officer that she was blindfolded and kidnapped in front of her apartment. The person, whom she did not know, tied her hands behind her back and transported her somewhere by car. He stopped the car, took her out of the car, and raped her. She told the officer that she was not sexually active. The person took her back to her apartments and left her there. She did not know the location of the rape. Although she did not tell her mother or brother what happened, she told two friends at school the next day, after which a police officer took her statement. During a sexual assault exam the next day, she told the medical personnel that no force was used but that her vagina hurt. Although there was some vaginal discharge, there were no acute injuries. There was evidence of healed hymenal trauma, indicating prior penetration. A few weeks after the incident, a police officer took a statement from a friend of the accuser who stated that she talked to the accuser on the day after the incident. The accuser had told her that she had gone to her boyfriend's house. Her boyfriend was not there, but one of his friends, a 20-year-old, “touched” her. The accuser's friend did not believe it was a stranger who attacked the woman.

Prior incident number 2: In September, 2000, the accuser was a student at the California School for the Deaf. She went to a grocery store with other students and, while there, saw Mark Crawford, whom she had met at school. She went for a drive with Crawford and went with him into a public restroom at a park where she claimed he forced her to have sex with him. A counselor questioned the accuser about leaving the store with Crawford. The accuser admitted she had gone for a drive with Crawford but denied that anything occurred between them. Months later, however, after the counselor received information that Crawford may have raped the accuser, she asked the accuser about it. At that point, the accuser told the counselor that Crawford had raped her in the restroom. The accuser told a police officer that Crawford pulled her from the store, took her forcibly by car, and raped her in the public restroom. She stated that she reported the rape to two counselors at the school and obtained an abortion pill from the nurse on campus. A social worker reported to an officer that she checked the records of the school's health center and determined that the accuser had come in because of vomiting that day but not because of a rape complaint. Several months later, the accuser told an officer that she voluntarily walked to Crawford's car. When she hesitated, Crawford demanded that she get in. Although she was scared, she got in the car. She told the officer that Crawford later pulled her out of the car, pulled and pushed her towards the restroom at the park, and assaulted her. Crawford was arrested, but he claimed that the encounter with the woman was consensual. He was never prosecuted.

After reviewing Mr. Tidwell's motion to admit the evidence, the trial court stated because the accuser never recanted her prior rape complaints, the only way Mr. Tidwell could establish the falsity of the complaints would be to have the men she accused testify. There were problems with that approach because the accuser was unable to identify an attacker for the February 2000 incident. The trial court scheduled a hearing for the defense to present evidence in an attempt to establish the falsity of the accuser's prior rape complaints. At the hearing, the defense, which had found Crawford, secured his presence in court to testify. But Crawford asserted his right to remain silent, making him unavailable as a witness.

The trial court subsequently ruled the evidence of the prior complaints was inadmissible. On appeal the court affirmed. The appeals court explained that “[a] prior false accusation of sexual molestation is … relevant on the issue of the molest victim's credibility.” The court explained that the same is true of a prior false rape complaint. However, here the accuser's prior rape complaints would have no bearing on her credibility unless it was also established that those prior complaints were false. The court found no conclusive evidence that her prior rape complaints were false. The defense was unable to obtain evidence from the men that the accuser accused, and inferences could be drawn either way from the circumstances of the prior incidents and the accuser's statements concerning the incidents. In addition to the weaknesses in the evidence concerning falsity of the rape complaints, the court said that it "would have resulted in an undue consumption of time" for the parties to embark on the task of litigating the truthfulness of the accuser's prior complaints.

A few comments:

First, it would have constituted an "undue consumption of time" to adjudicate the truthfulness of her two prior claims? For whom? Mr. Tidwell is now serving a 150 year minimum sentence, so he has all the time in the world. When a man's liberty hinges on the testimony of a woman who just happens to have made two prior questionable claims of rape it scarcely seems appropriate to suggest it would have taken up too much of the court's time to get at the truth.

Second, what if she had made three prior questionable claims? Or five? Or ten? Nothing in the opinion suggests the number would matter. At some point, isn't the jury entitled to decide for itself that the woman's credibility should be questioned -- because women typically don't experience multiple rapes in their lifetimes, much less within a few years of each other?

Third, we don't know why Mr. Crawford decided not to testify regarding the September 2000 incident. Theoretically, if he had, it might have spared Mr. Tidwell from serving the rest of his life in prison. This case underscores an important reason for obtaining either a judicial determination that a rape claim is false, or a recantation by the accuser: to protect other innocent men the accuser might falsely accuse in the future. Without a judicial determination or the accuser's recantation that her claim was false, at the trial of the next guy she falsely accuses, evidence of her prior false accusation probably won't be admissible. And the jury will never hear that she makes a habit of accusing men or boys of rape. The moral, guys: if she doesn't recant, it may be painful to pursue charges that she made a false report of rape against you, but in doing so you may be helping future innocent men or boys.