Category Archives: ER 404(B)

ER 404(B) and “Lustful Disposition”

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In State v. Gonzales, the WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court did not commit error in admitting evidence that, after the charged conduct, the victim observed the defendant masturbating while holding the victim’s bra.

BACKGROUND FACTS

When J.G. was six years old, she and her younger brother moved in with their grandfather, defendant Eddy Gonzales and his wife. This sexual abuse ended when J.G. was ten or eleven years old. But after the molestation stopped, J.G. once encountered Gonzales masturbating in his room while holding her bra.

When J.G. was eleven years old, she moved out of the house. She informed family members of the molestation. They, in turn, contacted police; who later arrested Mr. Gonzales.

Gonzales was charged with first degree rape of a child and first degree child molestation. The State later added a second count of first degree child rape and charged him with tampering with a witness.

At trial, the Court admitted testimony that he masturbated while holding J.G.’s bra.

The jury acquitted Gonzales of one count of first degree child rape, but found him guilty of the remaining charges. Among other issues not discussed here, Gonzales appealed on the issue of whether the trial court wrongfully admitted that evidence. He argued this uncharged misconduct goes to propensity and should be excluded under ER 404(b). He argues the trial court wrongfully admitted this testimony to show his “lustful disposition” toward J.G., particularly because it occurred after the charged conduct.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

First, the Court of Appeals described the rules of evidence which allow or disallow the evidence from getting to the jury. In short, (ER) 404(b) provides that evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts is not admissible to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. It may, however, be admissible for “other purposes.”

Consequently, the Court reasoned that Washington courts have consistently held one such other purpose is evidence of collateral sexual misconduct when it shows the defendant’s lustful disposition toward the victim. This is because a lustful disposition makes it more likely that the defendant committed the crime charged. Evidence of uncharged sexual misconduct occurring before or after the charged acts is admissible. In an ER 404(b) analysis, the trial court must balance and weigh probative value against the potential for unfair prejudice.

Second, the Court of Appeals applied the law to its reasoning. It said that here, the trial court admitted J.G.’s testimony that she saw Gonzales masturbating while holding her bra. The trial court reasoned that Gonzales’s behavior was sexual conduct that showed lustful disposition toward J.G. The trial court also found that the probative value of the evidence was not outweighed by unfair prejudice.

“The trial court did not abuse its discretion,” said the Court of Appeals. “Gonzales’s action shows a sexual desire for J.G. Thus, it goes toward an ‘other purpose’ as provided under ER 404(b).”

Third, the Court of Appeals rejected Gonzales’s arguments that any uncharged sexual misconduct is unfairly prejudicial in a sex abuse prosecution. It reasoned that the admitted evidence was not unfairly prejudicial because his act was not more inflammatory than the charged crime, and J.G. was only indirectly victimized by it.

Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected Gonzales’s arguments that the admitted testimony had diminished probative value because the incident occurred after the alleged abuse. The Court of Appeals reasoned that an act occurring after the charged abuse is relevant to lustful disposition. It was not an abuse of discretion to conclude that the probative value of this testimony was not outweighed by unfair prejudice.

With that, the Court of appeals affirm the admission of the “lustful disposition” testimony under ER 404(b) and upheld Mr. Gonzalez’s conviction.

My opinion?

It’s tricky to predict whether judges will admit or deny evidence when the evidence is offered for “other purposes” under ER 404(b). Judges have lots of discretion an how and where the rule applies. Still, judges must follow the doctrine of stare decisis and make rulings which are consistent existing case law when rendering decisions.

Fortunately, I’m quite familiar with the case law on this subject. Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member faces charges and the State wants to offer evidence of the offender’s behavior which falls outside the scope of the immediate facts that are alleged. Perhaps a well-argued pretrial motion to suppress evidence could change the complexion of the case and result in reducing or dismissing the charges.

Glaring During Trial

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In State v. Sagethe WA Court of Appeals held that a trial court did not abuse its discretion by denying the defendant’s motion for a mistrial based upon the victim’s behavior – glaring at the defendant – when called to the stand.

BACKGROUND FACTS

Jonathan Sage faced four counts of second degree rape of a child. He was alleged to have engaged in sexual acts with minors J.M. and E.M., and came into contact with the two brothers because he owned a company at which J.M. and E.M.’s mother worked.

The case proceeded to trial. During proceedings, the victim E.M. glared at Sage as he entered the courtroom. Sage’s defense attorney objected and requested an immediate mistrial. He described the interaction as follows:

“E.M. walked past defense counsel and hissed at the Defendant, bent down, and made an aggressive stare. As best as I could tell, the jurors looked horrified. Their reaction is clear that the stance or that moment is going to live in their minds as opposed to what he
testifies to. My client has a right to a fair trial, to be presumed innocent, and I don’t know that he can get a fair trial with this jury after that behavior.”

Although the trial judge sustained defense counsel’s objection, the court denied the motion for mistrial and instructed the jury to disregard E.M.’s behavior.

The jury convicted Sage on all four counts and, by special verdict, found the alleged aggravating circumstances had been established. The court concluded the aggravating circumstances were substantial and compelling reasons to impose an exceptional sentence.

Sage appealed his conviction and his exceptional sentence under the argument that his motion for a mistrial should have been granted because E.M.’s courtroom behavior prejudiced the jury.

COURT’S ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals reasoned that a trial court should only grant a mistrial when the defendant has been so prejudiced that nothing short of a new trial can ensure that the defendant will be fairly tried. To determine the effect of the irregularity leading to the request for a mistrial, the court examines: (i) its seriousness; (ii) whether it involved cumulative evidence; and (iii) whether the trial court properly instructed the jury to disregard it.

“Here, E.M. entered the courtroom and glared at Sage,” said the Court of Appeals. “The trial court denied Sage’s motion for mistrial and entered a detailed ruling on the record. Unlike a verbal outburst or threatening gesture, E.M. glared at Sage. The court gave a curative instruction. E.M. did not repeat the behavior after the trial court instructed the jury to disregard the behavior,” said the Court of Appeals. “We conclude the trial court did not abuse its discretion.” Also, the Court of Appeals upheld Sage’s exceptional sentence based on aggravating factors.

With that, the Court upheld Sage’s conviction and exceptional sentence.

Character Evidence

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In State v. Wilson the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court mistakenly admitted into evidence a dissimilar and unfairly prejudicial prior act of sexual misconduct as a purported common scheme or plan under ER 404(b).
BACKGROUND FACTS
Claudine Wilson has cared for her granddaughter, B.E., since she was born on January 29, 2006. In 2010, when B.E. was four years old, Claudine married the defendant Leslie Wilson. Wilson moved into Claudine’s home in Auburn, Washington which Claudine shared with several other family members. Claudine, Wilson, and B.E. shared a bedroom. Claudine and Wilson slept in a king size bed. B.E. had her own bed in the same room, but sometimes slept with Claudine and Wilson.
Wilson and B.E. appeared to get along well. However, the marriage between Wilson and Claudine eventually deteriorated, in part due to Wilson’s alcohol use. Wilson left the household in July 2012. About five months later, in December 2012, just after Claudine spoke to Wilson on the telephone, B.E. told Claudine that Wilson had touched her.
Wilson was charged with two counts of Rape of a Child in the First Degree and one count of Attempted Rape of a Child in the First Degree.
Before trial, the State informed the trial court of its intent to present evidence of a sexual remark Wilson allegedly made to B.E.’s older cousin, S.H. Specifically, S.H. claimed that when she was 11 or 12 years old and wearing a bathing suit, Wilson remarked that she should not “wear that stuff around [him] because it gets—[him] so excited.” The State argued that this evidence showed that Wilson had a common scheme or plan to sexually assault young girls. The defense argued that the evidence showed only propensity and was inadmissible. The court ruled that S.H.’s testimony demonstrated a common scheme or plan and was admissible under ER 404(b).
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Wilson that the trial court erred in admitting a dissimilar and unfairly prejudicial prior act of sexual misconduct as a purported common scheme or plan under ER 404(b).
The Court reasoned that ER 404(b) prohibits the use of evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith. The same evidence may be admissible for other purposes, however, depending on its relevance and the balancing of the probative value and danger of unfair prejudiceState v. Gresham. One accepted “other purpose” under ER 404(b) is to show the existence of a common scheme or plan.
The Court further reasoned that prior misconduct and the charged crime must share a sufficient number of “markedly and substantially similar” features so that the similarities can naturally be explained as individual manifestations of a general plan. The prior misconduct must be sufficiently similar to the charged crime, or else the evidence of misconduct is not probative of whether the alleged act occurred. Similarity of results is insufficient and the evidence must show more than a general “plan” to molest children. Ultimately, in doubtful cases, the evidence should be excluded.
Against that backdrop, the Court decided that the incidents described by B.E. and S.H. did not share “markedly and substantially similar” features that can naturally be explained as individual manifestations of a general plan:
“B.E. reported recurring incidents of sexual abuse. S.H. reported an isolated, sexually-oriented remark. There was a significant difference in the victims’ ages when the incidents occurred. The evidence was similar only in the respect that it tended to show Wilson’s sexual attraction to minors. S.H.’s testimony did not demonstrate the existence of a common scheme or plan. In view of the limited evidence presented to the jury, we cannot say that the admission of the ER 404(b) evidence did not materially affect the trial within reasonable probabilities.”
With that, the Court of Appeals reverse Wilson’s conviction of Rape of a Child.

Evidence of Self-Defense

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In State v. Lee, the WA Court of Appeals held that the trial court violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense by excluding evidence of self-defense.

BACKGROUND FACTS

On January 25, 2015, the defendant Chevalier  Lee’s girlfriend, Danielle Spicer, visited the home of Alice Gonzalez and her husband, Louis Gonzalez -ernandez. Spicer went to the Gonzalez’s house and stayed there with Gonzalez and Gonzalez Hernandez’s’ five children while Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez ran errands. Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez returned home to find Lee at their house playing cards with their children and Spicer. Although they had not invited him, Lee had been to their home many times and was generally welcome there.

Later that evening, Lee and Spicer began arguing about whether they would spend the night with Gonzalez and Gonzalez-Hernandez or return to their respective individual residences. Lee loudly cursed at Spicer as the argument escalated. Gonzalez-Hernandez told Lee that he did not like “that kind of behavior” in his house and Lee would have to leave. Lee refused and said that he didn’t have to leave. Gonzalez-Hernandez told Lee to leave approximately three-to-five times. According to Lee, he then cursed at Gonzalez-Hernandez who “came right at” him. Gonzalez-Hernandez had his hands up. Lee was scared and hit Gonzalez-Hernandez. The two men then wrestled. Lee left after seeing the scared looks Gonzalez, Spicer, and the children had.

According to Gonzalez-Hernandez, Lee called him a “f**king b***h” and hit him in the
face. Another witness saw Lee approach Gonzalez-Hernandez and get within inches of his face. Gonzalez-Hernandez again told Lee to leave and Lee “swung at him.” After they fought for a few minutes, Gonzalez called 911 and Lee and Spicer left.

Jury Trial

At trial, the defense sought to elicit testimony from Spicer that she and Lee had witnessed
Gonzalez-Hernandez being “physical with his wife” in a separate incident four days prior to the assault. Lee’s attorney argued that this evidence would show that Lee had actual knowledge that Mr. Gonzalez-Hernandez actually had the capacity to be aggressive and/or violent. According to Lee’s defense attorney, this evidence would show Lee’s state of mind regarding his need to defend himself.

The judge sustained the City’s objection, finding the evidence was “more prejudicial than probative” and that allowing such evidence would open the door to evidence about Lee’s prior misconduct. The defense suggested it would then elicit testimony that Lee “had prior information that Mr. Gonzalez-Hernandez had been known to be aggressive.” The trial court sustained the City’s objection to this evidence, finding it “more prejudicial than probative of anything.”

In fact, during Lee’s testimony, Lee stated that he “had reason to be scared of Gonzalez-Hernandez already,” to which the City objected and the court sustained. Neither the City nor the court stated any specific grounds for this objection or ruling.

A jury found Lee guilty of Assault Fourth Degree. He appealed to the Pierce County Superior Court which affirmed the conviction. The WA Court of Appeals granted Lee’s motion for discretionary review.

COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS

The Court of Appeals held that the trial court violated Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense by excluding evidence of self-defense.

The Court agreed with Lee that evidence he had witnessed regarding Gonzalez-Hernandez’s recent violent behavior was critical to his defense because it both increased the likelihood he had a subjective fear of Gonzalez-Hernandez and it made his fear more objectively reasonable, thus strengthening his self-defense argument.

The Court of Appeals reasoned that self-defense is a complete defense under RCW 9A.16.020. A defense of self-defense requires proof (1) that the defendant had a subjective fear of imminent danger of bodily harm, (2) that this belief was objectively reasonable, and (3) that the defendant exercised no more force than was reasonably necessary. The City has the burden of proving the absence of self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Court further reasoned that evidence of self-defense is evaluated from the standpoint of the reasonably prudent person, knowing all the defendant knows and seeing all the defendant sees. This standard incorporates both objective and subjective elements. The subjective portion requires the jury to stand in the shoes of the defendant and consider all the facts and circumstances known to him or her; the objective portion requires the jury to use this information to determine what a reasonably prudent person similarly situated would have done.

Also, said the Court, a fact finder evaluates self-defense from the defendant’s point of view as conditions appeared to him at the time of the act. For the subjective portion of the self-defense test, jurors must place themselves in the shoes of the defendant and evaluate self-defense in light of all that the defendant knew at the time. All facts and circumstances known to the defendant should be placed before the jury. Thus, reasoned the court, under ER 404(B) and ER 405 (B), where a defendant claims self-defense, a victim’s prior acts of violence known to the defendant are admissible to establish a defendant’s reason for apprehension and his basis for acting in self-defense.

ER 404(B)

To determine whether a specific act should be admissible under rule 404(B), the trial court must (1) find by a preponderance of the evidence that the misconduct occurred, (2) identify the purpose for which the evidence is sought to be introduced, (3) determine whether the evidence is relevant to prove an element of the crime charged, and (4) weigh the probative value against the prejudicial effect. The trial court is required to conduct an ER 404(b) analysis on the record.

“In this case, Lee sought to admit evidence of Gonzalez Hernandez’s prior acts of violence
to prove that Lee had knowledge of those acts, giving him reason to fear Gonzalez-Hernandez,” said the Court.

Furthermore, the Court reasoned that evidence that Lee had witnessed Gonzalez-Hernandez being “physical” with his wife four days before the incident was relevant to Lee’s state of mind. “The evidence would allow the jury to assess Lee’s reason to fear
bodily harm from the victim,” said the Court.

Finally, the Court weighed the probative value of Gonzalez-Hernandez’s history of violence against its prejudicial effect. “Because the evidence in this case was relevant and otherwise admissible, the trial court should only exclude it if the City showed that the evidence was so prejudicial as to disrupt the fairness of the fact-finding process at trial,” said the Court. “Here, the proffered evidence went to Lee’s complete defense. Its probative value is to allow Lee to present a defense.”

Consequently, the Court ruled that the City failed to demonstrate that evidence of Gonzalez-Hernandez’s prior violent conduct known to Lee would be so prejudicial as to outweigh Lee’s Sixth Amendment right to present his defense. “This type of evidence should be heard by a jury so it can assess the reasonableness of Lee’s actions,” said the Court.

With that, the Court of Appeals reversed Lee’s conviction.

My opinion? Good decision. Under the Sixth Amendment, citizens have a right to an adequate defense. Under Washington statute, self-defense is a complete defense. Therefore, suppressing evidence which proves self-defense violates the Sixth Amendment.