Often, winning a criminal trial involves going beyond facts and criminal laws to understanding and using the rules of evidence. The best evidence in the world is useless if it can’t be out before a jury. In a recent case, a significant conviction was overturned based on a court’s preventing a criminal defendant from presenting his evidence.
Allegations of Assault on a Minor
The case arose from an allegation of sexual abuse on a minor child. The alleged perpetrator was the minor’s godparent. The families were close; their kids played with each other and they were neighbors, even doing chores for each other.
The charges stem from the minor’s testimony that the neighbor touched him sexually while the two were in the neighbor’s attic and car. On each occasion of abuse, the neighbor warned the child not to tell anyone what had happened.
The child did tell his dad, which led to an investigation, charges, and a trial. Because of the child’s fear of reporting what had happened, his stories had some inconsistencies in them. For example, he initially lied to a social worker, telling her nothing had happened.
The neighbor testified at trial that the car in which the touching supposedly happened wasn’t even working at the time, that the garage door where the attic was located was always open, and that he never committed the acts charged against him. In many instances, the neighbor contended, third parties were present, and thus the sexual abuse could not have occurred.
However, the neighbor’s lawyer was prevented from cross examining on many of these points.
After much deliberation, the jury eventually convicted the neighbor on three counts of sexual abuse.
Appeal Alleges Improper Exclusion of Testimony
On appeal, the neighbor argued that he was impermissibly prevented from conducting full cross examination, as the sixth amendment to the constitution requires. A court can limit cross examination, within reason, when questioning is harassing, repetitive, confusing, or marginally relevant.
The appellate court agreed that the neighbor was prevented from effectively conveying his argument that the victim’s father had pressured the victim into saying that the neighbor had committed the assaults.
The trial court excluded the minor’s statements about what his father had told him on hearsay grounds. But the Appellate Court found that the statements were not hearsay–they were merely being brought forth by the neighbor to show the pressure that the minor was put under by his father.
The Court noted that the minor’s veracity–propensity to tell the truth–was a big issue in the case. The minor did testify that after telling the social worker nothing had happened, he spoke to his father, and only then leveled the accusations at the neighbor.
Because of the difficulty the jurors had in deliberating, and the questions they had, it certainly could be said that the testimony, if allowed by the trial court, could have swayed the jury, and thus, its exclusion created harmful error. The conviction was reversed, and a retrial was ordered.
Understanding how to try cases and to get evidence in or keep it out is crucial to a complete defense of criminal charges. The attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience at all stages of the criminal defense process. If you or someone you know was arrested or charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.