Category Archives: Prior Bad Acts

Prostitution Evidence Admitted During Defendant’s Assault Trial.

Image result for abused prostitutes

In State v. Woods, the WA Court of Appeals held that evidence that the defendant prostituted the victim was properly admitted in his prosecution for second degree assault by strangulation. These prior acts were necessary to explain to the jury why the victim was fearful of seeking help from her family or from the police.

BACKGROUND FACTS.

The Defendant Euran Woods and victim BrittanyEnglund began their volatile relationship in 2009. At that time, Woods and Englund sold drugs together and Englund herself was addicted to drugs. As Englund’s drug addiction grew, so did her dependency on Woods— who exploited this dependency to isolate Englund from her friends and family. In addition to being emotionally abusive, Woods physically abused Englund throughout their relationship.

In 2011, Woods began forcing Englund to prostitute herself. He conditioned Englund to comply with his demands by convincing her that her life of prostitution was only temporary and that one day they would both have normal jobs and be happy together.

Englund argued with Woods regarding the prostitution several times. On one occasion in August of 2011, Woods strangled Englund until she passed out. Englund did not inform the police or her family of the abuse or prostitution both out of fear that Woods would retaliate and because she felt that Woods loved her and was sorry.

However, Woods strangled Englund again in September of 2011 after she discovered  he had been taking suggestive pictures with other women. Woods threw Englund across the room, kicked her, stomped on her, and strangled her until she passed out. Woods later apologized to Englund, who decided to not call the police.

In April of 2012, Woods again assaulted Englund. Her mother drove her to the hospital. Englund disclosed the 2011 assaults for the first time during a subsequent interview with a police detective.

THE CHARGES, JURY TRIAL & BASIS FOR APPEAL.

Woods was charged with one count of assault in the second degree for the September 2011 strangulation, with a special allegation of domestic violence pursuant to RCW 10.99.020.

During trial, the court admitted evidence of the August 2011 strangulation and the prostitution evidence. It determined that such evidence was admissible because it aided the jurors in understanding the nature of the relationship, motive, and intent, and helped to illuminate the victim’s state of mind.  The trial court also noted that—in matters dealing with domestic violence—testimony regarding prior assaults may assist the jury in understanding the dynamics of the domestic violence relationship and in assessing the victim’s credibility.

The jury found Woods guilty. He timely appealed. Although his attorney filed an Anders brief on arguments that the appeal was frivolous, the WA Court of Appeals nevertheless granted review to resolve the issues presented.

THE COURT’S REASONING AND CONCLUSION.

ER 404(b) Evidence

The Court of Appeals illustrated that under ER 404(b), evidence of a defendant’s prior bad act is not admissible to prove the defendant’s character and to show action in conformity therewith. However, such evidence may be admissible for other purposes, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice. For evidence of a prior bad act to be admissible, a trial judge 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.

Under this analysis, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court’s rulings herein werecorrect. Englund’s testimony as to how Woods forced her into prostitution and why she was unable to escape was necessary for the jurors to understand the dynamics of this domestic violence relationship. Furthermore, Woods’ forced prostitution of Englund was a source of shame and fear for Englund and was an important factor in understanding why she refused to seek help from her friends, family, and the police.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Court illustrated how Constitutionally ineffective assistance of counsel is established only when the defendant shows that (1) counsel’s performance, when considered in light of all the circumstances, fell below an objectively reasonable standard of performance, and (2) there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s deficient performance, the result of the proceeding would have been different.

Under this analysis, the Court rejected Wood’s arguments that his counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the admission of the prostitution evidence.  It reasoned there was nothing objectionable about this evidence because it was properly admitted pursuant to ER 404(b). Moreover, Woods’ counsel expressly deferred an objection to the prostitution evidence after stating that he viewed that evidence as presenting a valuable area for cross examination: “Rather, the record demonstrates that a tactical decision was made.”

Woods also believed he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to request a limiting instruction regarding the prostitution evidence. However, the Court of Appeals held this was also a strategic decision on the part of Woods’ defense attorney: “Defense counsel argued to the jury that Woods did not cause Englund’s injuries. Rather, he posited, those injuries could have been a result of Englund’s prostitution.” Thus, deficient performance was not established.

With that, the COurt of Appeals held that Woods was not prejudiced and upheld his conviction.

“Joining” Multiple Offenses

Image result for rap sheet

In State v. Bluford, the WA Court of Appeals Division I decided a trial court correctly joined a defendant’s multiple counts of robbery for one trial. The similarities between the crimes were adequate for the offenses to be cross admissible to establish a modus operandi.

The State charged Charles Bluford with nine felony counts. These included seven counts of Robbery in the First Degree plus a charge of Rape in the First Degree of one victim and Indecent Liberties of a separate victim.

The State initially charged Bluford under three different cause numbers, but moved to join all the counts for trial. Bluford moved to sever five of the counts from the others. The court considered these cross motions at the same hearing and joined all counts for trial.

The jury found Bluford guilty of eight counts and acquitted him of one count of Robbery. It sentenced him to life without the possibility of release. Bluford appeals.

The Court of Appeals began by discussing the statute and court rule regarding the “joinder” of criminal offenses. RCW 10.37.060 states the following:

When there are several charges against any person, or persons, for the same act or transaction, or for two or more acts or transactions connected together, or for two or more acts or transactions of the same class of crimes or offenses, which may be properly joined, instead of having several indictments or informations the whole may be joined in one indictment, or information, in separate counts; and, if two or more indictments are found, or two or more informations filed, in such cases, the court may order such indictments or informations to be consolidated.

Also, CrR 4.3 says the following:

Two or more offenses may be joined in one charging document, with each offense stated in a separate count, when the offenses, whether felonies or misdemeanors or both: (1) Are of the same or similar character, even if not part of a single scheme or plan; or (2) Are based on the same conduct or on a series of acts connected together or constituting parts of a single scheme or plan.

The court reasoned that the joinder rule promotes the public policy goal of conserving judicial resources. Also, joinder is appropriate unless it is so “manifestly prejudicial” that it outweighs the need for judicial economy. In other words, courts may not join offenses if it would prejudice the defendant.

The court applied the four-factors guide from State v. Cotten to determine whether prejudice results from joinder:

(1) the strength of the State’s evidence on each of the counts; (2) the clarity of the defenses on each count; (3) the propriety of the trial court’s instruction to the jury regarding the consideration of evidence of each count separately; and (4) the admissibility of the evidence of the other crimes.

The Court applied the Cotten factors.

First, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the trial court correctly determined that the strength of the State’s evidence for each count was equivalently strong.

Second, Bluford asserted a general denial for each count. Therefore, he could not have been prejudiced by inconsistent defenses because his defenses were all the same.

Third, Bluford argues that the court’s instructions to the jury at the end of the case did not instruct the jury that it could not consider the evidence of other crimes as propensity evidence. However, Bluford failed to request such an instruction. And the trial court is not required to give such an instruction if the defendant fails to request one.

Fourth, the court determined that the evidence of each count would be cross admissible for the other counts for the purpose of showing modus operandi. It reasoned that although ER 404(b) prohibits introducing evidence of other bad acts as propensity evidence, such evidence is admissible for other purposes, such as proof of motive, plan, or identity. Under the modus operandi exception, evidence of other bad acts is admissible to show identity if the method employed in the commission of crimes is so unique that proof that an accused committed one of the crimes creates a high probability that he also committed the other crimes with which he is charged. The modus operandi must be so unusual and distinctive as to be like a signature.

In Bluford’s case, the trial court determined that the crimes were cross admissible for the following reasons:

Each incident occurred within an approximately two month period. Each incident occurred during hours of darkness. Each incident occurred in the Seattle metro area. Each incident occurred in a residential area. The defendant was a stranger to each victim. In each incident, the victims were alone when  . . . a male approached with a handgun and gave verbal demands to the victims. The descriptions of the handgun by the victims are similar. Four of the victims gave a description of the vehicle, which matches the vehicle the defendant was later found inside. Two of the three female victims were sexually assaulted during the course of the robberies. Although one of the female victims was not sexually assaulted during the robbery, she ran away at the time of the robbery, thereby limiting the opportunity for the defendant to sexually assault her . . . Therefore, although none of the incidents are a carbon copy of the others, the incidents are strikingly similar.Additionally, in each case the perpetrator approached the victim as he or she exited a car. And when the victim did not cooperate, the perpetrator forcefully took his or her property or assaulted the victim.

Consequently, modus operandi was proven. Finally, because Bryant failed to renew his motion to sever during trial, he technically failed to preserve for review the issue of severance.

Bluford’s convictions were upheld. However, the Court of Appeals vacated his sentence of life without the possibility of release and remanded for resentencing.

My opinion?

At trial, Prosecutors commonly try joining a defendant’s multiple offenses. As stated above, doing so creates judicial efficiency and shows propensity evidence under ER 404(b). Still, competent defense attorneys should try to sever multiple counts anyway; and most important RENEW THE MOTION DURING TRIAL. Failing to do so effectively waives the issue to be preserved for appeal.

State v. Ashley: Prior Bad Acts of DV

In  State v. Ashley, the WA Supreme Court decided a trial court properly admitted evidence of the defendant’s prior acts of domestic violence against the victim. Here, defendant Baron Ashley was charged with Unlawful Imprisonment Domestic Violence (DV) for detaining his girlfriend Makayla Gamble in the bathroom without her consent.

Apparently, Ashley and the victim Makayla Gamble had a long-term DV relationship. Gamble testified that Ashley had physically abused her in the past. She explained that she had been in a relationship with Ashley for several years and that he had abused her multiple times during that relationship. In total, Gamble described four specific instances of abuse, including three instances when Gamble was pregnant. Gamble explained that she suffered bruises, black eyes, and a popped eardrum as a result of these attacks, but that she called the police only once and later retracted her complaint because she loved Ashley. Specifically, Gamble testified that these instances affected her decision to get into the bathroom when instructed.

The jury found Ashley guilty as charged.

On appeal, Ashley argued the trial court wrongfully admitted evidence of his prior misconduct under Evidence Rule (ER) 404(b). The Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction, and the WA Supreme Court granted review. ER 404(b) provides in full:

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, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident. By its plain language, the rule absolutely prohibits certain types of evidence from being used “to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity therewith,” but allows that same evidence to be introduced for any other purpose, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice.

The Court  explained that ER 404(b) prohibits certain types of evidence from being
used “to prove the character of a person in order to show action in conformity
therewith,” but allows that same evidence to be introduced for any other purpose,
depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of
unfair prejudice. The Court also referred to its four-part test to determine if ER 404(b) evidence is admissible:

“To admit evidence of a person’s prior misconduct, 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.”

Here, Defendant Ashley argued that the State did not establish that the incidents of prior domestic violence even occurred. He also said that this evidence was irrelevant to Gamble’s credibility and to the elements of the crime, and that the prejudice of the prior bad acts dramatically outweighed any probative value of the evidence.

However, the WA Supreme Court rejected Ashley’s arguments.

The Court decided the Prosecution satisfied the first prong of the test: “The trial court heard undisputed testimony describing a series of instances of domestic violence by Ashley against Gamble and reviewed a 2004 police report. The trial court found Gamble’s testimony credible. Ashley presents no legal or factual argument for disturbing this finding; he simply disagrees with it.”

The Court also found the prosecution satisfied the second and third prong of the test:

“The State’s theory was that Ashley intimidated Gamble, forcing her to remain in the bathroom. The trial court found that the State demonstrated that Ashley’s history of domestic abuse against Gamble was highly probative of whether Ashley restrained Gamble using intimidation and fear based on this history of domestic abuse. Essentially, the trial court found-and the Court of Appeals agreed-that the domestic violence evidence was both material and relevant to Gamble’s lack of consent and to whether Ashley restrained Gamble by intimidation. We agree.”

Finally, the Court held the Prosecution satisfied the fourth prong of the test:

“Here, the trial court properly balanced these interests, concluding that Ashley’s long history of domestic violence toward Gamble was highly probative in assessing whether Ashley intimidated Gamble, such that she was restrained without her consent.”

In conclusion, the Court held that the trial court undertook the proper ER 404(b) analysis, the domestic violence evidence presented was highly probative of the victim’s lack of consent, and the State met its burden of demonstrating the evidence’s overriding probative value to establish a necessary element of the crime. However, the Court also held that the trial court committed harmless error by instructing the jurors that they could consider the evidence for the purpose of bolstering Gamble’s credibility. Ashley’s conviction was affirmed.

For more information on Domestic Violence issues please review my Legal Guide titled “Defending Against Domestic Violence Charges.” There, I provide links to my analysis of Washington cases discussing domestic violence. Also, please go the search engine of my Blog if you have specific queries about these issues.

Finally, I am available for free consultations if you face criminal charges involving domestic violence.

Good luck!

Jury Acquits Mr. Ransom’s Client of Assault Fourth Degree (DV) & Malicious Mischief Third Degree (DV)

Client was charged with Assault Fourth Degree Domestic Violence (DV) under RCW 9A.36.041 and Malicious Mischief Third Degree (DV) under RCW 9A.48.090. Here, Client allegedly destroyed her ex-boyfriend’s laptop and struck him in the face while they argued. Both crimes are gross misdemeanors punishable up to 1 year jail and a $5,000 fine each. Making matters worse, a conviction for DV crimes brings enhanced jail penalties, mandatory DV evaluations and treatment, mandatory probation, a court-imposed No-Contact Order with the alleged victim and loss of firearms rights.

The Prosecutor refused to negotiate or resolve the charges in light of client’s prior criminal history. Also, the alleged victim insisted he was victimized throughout his relationship with Client. Nevertheless, and at trial, Mr. Ransom successfully suppressed evidence of Client’s prior bad acts and criminal convictions under Evidence Rule (ER) 404(b) and ER 609. Although the judge denied Mr. Ransom’s self-defense jury instruction, Mr. Ransom successfully prevailed at trial by raising reasonable doubt to the State’s lack of evidence and the alleged victim’s lack of credibility. The jury acquitted Client under 1 hour.

Washington Legislature Passes Bill Supporting DNA Testing of Rape Kits.

On March 2, 2015, the Washington House Appropriations committe voted “Yes” on House Bill 1068; which supports DNA testing of rape kits sitting in evidence rooms across Washington Counties. The bill passed 82-15.

Essentially, numerous Washington counties – including Whatcom County – could help find serial rapists. House Bill 1068 arrives on the heels of recent controversy that rape kit evidence containing DNA evidence has been ignored by police departments statewide.

The Bellingham Herald ran two articles on this news. One story, titled Prosecutor: Testing Evidence Kits Can Lead to Finding Repeat Rapists discussed people’s responses to House Bill 1068.

The article mentions that Prosecutors like Rick Bell of Ohio support House Bill 1068. He claims that out of 6,000 kits tested, 2,244 received a hit to a known offender in a national database. Additionally, of the rapists indicted by his his office in Cuyahoga County, 30 percent are serial rapists. “Those serial offenders were going undetected, in part because labs couldn’t process all cases, so kits involving acquaintance rapes weren’t tested,” said Bell.

Also according to the article, Western Washington University college students like Heather Heffelmire, who is working in Olympia as the Legislative Liaison for Western Washington University’s Associated Students, testified in favor of House Bill 1068 during a public hearing in January. She said one of the main legislative priorities for WWU’s student body this year is to support survivors of sexual violence. “If you think about assault on campuses, it’s not like a predator does one assault — it’s usually a pattern of behavior,” Heffelmire said. “If you’re not having these kits tested, you can’t find that out.”

Additionally, Leah Gehri, the Director of Emergency Services at St. Joseph hospital in Bellingham WA, said she thinks HB 1068 is timely. “When you think about how long DNA evidence has been around, … at one point there weren’t a lot of DNA profiles hanging out there, they just didn’t have a lot of them,” Gehri said. “Now however, 20 years later, when profiles are quite common, the likelihood that an untested kit would now match up against a perpetrator in the system is more likely than it ever has been.”

Another article from the Bellingham Herald titled, Washington Lawmaker Tries to Tackle Thousands of Untested Rape Kits in State discusses the efforts of Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines toward having House Bill 1068 passed. 

The specific language House Bill 1068 is as follows:

Substitute offered in the House on January 23, 2015, requires a law enforcement agency to submit a request for laboratory examination within 30 days of receiving a sexual assault examination kit, provided that the victim or the victim’s legal guardian has consented to analysis of the kit as part of a sexual assault investigation. Specifies that failure to comply with the 30-day deadline does not create a private right of action against the law enforcement agency and is not a basis to exclude evidence in a court proceeding or to set aside a conviction or sentence. Creates a work group to study the issue of untested sexual assault examination kits in Washington, which must file an annual report through June 30, 2018.

My opinion? As a defense attorney, I support the notion that evidence garnered from the DNA testing of rape kits could be probative, relevant and cumulative in proving that the the perpetrator had a pattern of rape. Nevertheless, I have two concerns:

First, while I understand and agree with intent to have kits processed as quickly as possible, the timelines set forth in this proposal are probaly unattainable with existing resources and do not take into account the complexities of processing kits. The 30-day timeline is very problematic for crime labs and is not feasible without a huge influx of resources (equipment, personnel, and possibly larger facilities).

Second, House Bill 1068 does not take into account the multitude of legal circumstances surrounding these kits.  For example, in a number of rape cases, the identity of the involved parties is not in question and both parties affirmatively indicate a sexual act occurred. Here, the issue is consent, not identity. Consequently, DNA analysis would only confirm what is already known.

In all likelihood, the latter issue will rest on the shoulders of jury trial judges who decide pretrial motions to admit or suppress DNA evidence in rape cases. In other words, we’ll see what happens . . .

State v. Gunderson: Court Decides Prior “Bad Acts” of Domestic Violence Are Inadmissible

Good opinion. In State v. Gunderson, the Court of Appeals decided a trial judge improperly allowed evidence of the defendant’s “prior bad acts” of domestic violence under Evidence Rule (ER) 404(b) at the defendant’s jury trial.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/pdf/892971.pdf

Here, the State charged defendant Daniel Scott Gunderson with Domestic Violence Felony Violation of a Court Order for a September 2010 altercation between himself and Christina Moore, his ex-girlfriend. At trial, Ms. Moore testified that no assault occurred. Although she made no prior statements about the incident, let alone an inconsistent statement, the State sought to introduce evidence of a 911 Call to police and also Gunderson’s prior domestic violence against Ms. Moore to impeach her credibility and show that she was a “recanting” domestic violence victim who was unduly influenced by the defendant. The trial judge admitted this evidence over Gunderson’s ER 404(b) objection. Gunderson argued that the trial court should have excluded evidence of his prior bad acts under ER 404(b).

Some background is necessary. Under ER 404(b), evidence of a defendant’s “Prior Bad Acts” is inadmissible for the purpose of proving a person’s character and showing that the person acted in conformity with that character. The same evidence may, however, be admissible for any other purpose, depending on its relevance and the balancing of its probative value and danger of unfair prejudice.

For evidence of prior bad acts to be admissible, a trial judge 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.

Here, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the probative value of the prior DV evidence was outweighed by its significant prejudicial effect. It stated the following:

“Much like in cases involving sexual crimes, courts must be careful and methodical in weighing the probative value against the prejudicial effect of prior acts in domestic violence cases because the risk of unfair prejudice is very high. To guard against this heightened prejudicial effect, we confine the admissibility of prior acts of domestic violence to cases where the State has established their overriding probative value, such as to explain a witness’s otherwise inexplicable recantation or conflicting account of events. Otherwise, the jury may well put too great a weight on a past conviction and use the evidence for an improper purpose.”

The Court of Appeals further reasoned that the trial court’s error was not harmless, and that it is reasonably probable that the admission of the two domestic violence convictions materially affected the outcome of the trial. Consequently, and given the above analysis the Court of Appeals revered the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to a new trial.

My opinion? This decision was very reasonable, even-handed opinion which was effectively based on the law. The logic makes sense. Because the victim did not make conflicting statements and did not recant and the State did not articulate some other compelling justification, the probative value of this evidence is limited in comparison to its significant prejudicial effect. Not only was it manifestly unreasonable for the trial court to admit this evidence, it was also reasonably probable that the jury would have reached a different outcome. Good opinion.