Category Archives: Opening the Door

Opening the Door

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In State v. Wafford, the WA Court of Appeals that a defendant’s counsel “opened the door” to suppressed evidence during opening statement, and that the proper remedy was to admit evidence that the court had previously ruled inadmissible.

FACTS & BACKGROUND

The incidents began years before. In 2005, T.H.’s mother heard that eight-year-old T.H. had told a friend that something inappropriate happened with Mr. Wafford. After reporting to police, T.H.’s mother took T.H. to be interviewed at Dawson Place, the Snohomish County Center for Child Advocacy. There, a child forensic interview specialist talked with T.H., and their conversation was video-recorded. T.H. did not make a specific disclosure of sexual abuse by Wafford, though she did appear to nod affirmatively in response to one question about inappropriate sexual contact. The State did not investigate further or charge Wafford.

However, Mr. Wafford continued to sexually abuse H.F. as well as her sister T.H. Eventually, the State charged Wafford with crimes against both T.H. and H.F.  As to T.H., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and first degree incest. As to H.F., Wafford was charged with first degree rape of a child, first degree child molestation, and third degree child molestation.

PRE-TRIAL SUPPRESSION OF VIDEO INTERVIEW

Before trial, the court conducted a child hearsay hearing at which it concluded that the 2005 recorded interview of T.H. was inadmissible. The court reasoned that because T.H. never actually described an act of sexual contact, her statements were not admissible under the child hearsay statute.

TRIAL

During defense counsel’s opening statement, she referred explicitly to the video of T.H.’s interview: “Mariyah brought both H.F. and T.H. to Dawson Place in 2005. Nova Robinson interviewed on video T.H., but T.H. denied that anything was happening to her.” The State did not object.

After opening remarks, the State requested that the court admit the interview video that had been previously excluded. The State argued that when defense counsel mentioned the video, she opened the door to its admission. The court found that defense counsel opened the door and admitted a portion of the video. Ultimately, the jury found Wafford guilty of first degree child molestation of T.H., but was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining counts. The court sentenced Wafford to 68 months in prison.

Wafford appealed on the argument that, as a matter of law, comments made by counsel during opening statements cannot open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

ANALYSIS AND CONCLUSION

The Court reasoned that (1) a party who introduces evidence of questionable admissibility may open the door to rebuttal with evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible, and (2) a party who is the first to raise a particular subject at trial may open the door to evidence offered to explain, clarify, or contradict the party’s evidence. State v. Jones, citing 5 KARL B. TEGLAND, WASHINGTON PRACTICE: EVIDENCE LAW AND PRACTICE § 103.14, at 66-67 (5th ed.2007).

With that background, the Court addressed Wafford’s argument that because a comment made during an opening statement  is not evidence, it cannot open the door pursuant to State v. Whelchel and  Corson v. Corson.

However, the Court distinguished these cases. First, it reasoned that Whelchel does not support the broad proposition that opening statements cannot open the door because the evidence in question in Whelchel was admissible when the parties made opening statements. Second, the Corson case was distinguishable because in that case the trial court wrongfully admitted irrelevant and prejudicial evidence in response to an improper opening statement when other more effective means of ensuring a fair proceeding are available. Consequently, the Corson case did not hold that opening statements can never open the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence.

Next, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that comments made during opening statements cannot open the door. First, such a rule would be contrary to the general rule permitting trial courts the discretion to determine the admissibility of evidence. Second, whether the issue arises from the statement of counsel or the testimony of a witness is immaterial to the question faced by the trial judge: to what extent, if any, has the statement compromised the fairness of the trial and what, if any, response is appropriate:

“In answering this question, the trial judge should have a range of options at his or her disposal. A judge may admonish the jury to disregard certain statements or reiterate its instruction that opening statements are not evidence. The judge may allow testimony about otherwise inadmissible evidence, while continuing to exclude the exhibit or document which contains the evidence. Or the judge may find that a party has opened the door to otherwise inadmissible evidence. The appropriate response is that, which in the discretion of the trial judge, best restores fairness to the proceeding.”

Finally, the Court rejected Wafford’s argument that the trial court mistakenly admitted the recording because it was inadmissible hearsay and therefore incompetent evidence.  Under ER 801(d)(1)(ii), a statement is not hearsay if “the declarant testifies at the trial or hearing and is subject to cross examination concerning the statement, and the statement is… consistent with the declarant’s testimony and is offered to rebut an express or implied charge against the declarant of recent fabrication or improper influence or motive. . . .” Here, however, the victim testified. The court concluded her affirmation of Wafford’s unlawful sexual conduct was consistent with her testimony and is thus not hearsay under ER 801(d)(1).

With that, the Court upheld Wafford’s conviction and sentencing.

My opinion?

It is well settled in Washington that a party that introduces evidence of questionable admissibility runs the risk of “opening the door” to the admission of otherwise inadmissible evidence by an opposing party.

For this reason, it is mandatory that attorneys exercise extreme discretion with their comments and questions during trial. Defense attorneys must avoid discussing evidence they work so hard to suppress. Not only can one “open the door” during direct and cross examination of witnesses, but also opening statements.