Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Refreshing turn: court holds it's unfair to attack the character of the accused in a rape trial

In a he said-she said sexual assault case in West Virginia, the state's Supreme Court of Appeals recently struck a blow for the presumptively innocent by holding that it's not fair to attack the character of the accused.  This is a refreshing turn of events.

In rape cases, judges routinely hold that it's not proper to admit evidence of the accuser's sexual promiscuity because the accuser's character should not be on trial in a rape case--the only question is whether a rape occurred. But in the West Virginia case, the court held that evidence attacking the character of the accused (specifically, evidence suggesting he is a sexual predator) should not be admitted because it is so prejudicial that it could deprive the accused of a fair trial. The case is called State v. Maggard, 2013 W. Va. LEXIS 1043 (2013). The majority's opinion was refuted by a vigorous defense that repeatedly called the accuser "the victim."

Bryan Scott Maggard alleged that he was deprived of a fair trial when the circuit court allowed the State to question the alleged victim regarding his sexual history and portraying him as a sexual predator. On direct examination at trial, the State asked the alleged victim, referred to as J.C., why she did not want to go into Maggard's house when he kept persistently asking her to accompany him into the residence. J.C. answered, "I heard how he is." The defense objected and said "'Heard how he is' is completely outside the scope of what is going on here." The circuit court responded "I will let her answer that." The State then asked, "and you said you knew?" J.C. replied, "Yes. And how he was that he just wants to be with — he just wants to get one thing from girls." Importantly, the State repeated J.C.'s answers twice during its closing argument. The first time, the State represented in closing,
"[s]o she knows what he is like and she is not wanting to have sex at that time with him. That's her decision to make and she says, 'Look, I made this agreement with him. I am not going to have sex with him and I told him that.'"
The second time the State mentioned J.C.'s comments in closing, the State represented that "[t]hat's why [J.C.] made that agreement with him. You heard what [J.C.] said. 'I had heard what he was like. I mean, I had heard these things about him.'"

The court held: "It is apparent from the record that the statements "heard how he is" and "how he was that he just wants to be with — he just wants to get one thing from girls" clearly insinuates that Maggard is a sexual predator."

Generally, evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show that he or she acted in conformity therewith.

Typically in rape cases, when defense counsel seeks to enter evidence showing that a rape accuser has previously behaved in a promiscuous fashion, such evidence is excluded pursuant to rape shield laws that prevent the accuser's character from being put on trial.

Shouldn't the accused's character be similarly protected?  In West Virginia, at least, it is.