Prostitution Evidence Admitted During Defendant’s Assault Trial

In State v. Woods, the WA Court of Appeals held that evidence of prostitution was properly admitted in the defendant’s prosecution for assault in the second degree. The Court reasoned 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.


The Defendant and alleged victim began their volatile relationship in 2009. Drug use, emotional abuse and physical abuse were allegedly involved.  Later, allegations arose the Defendant forced the alleged victim to engage in prostitution.

In April of 2012, the alleged victim’s mother drove her to the hospital in the aftermath of an alleged assault. The alleged victim disclosed other recent assaults during a subsequent interview with a police detective.


The Defendant 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 an 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 alleged victim’s state of mind.  The trial court also noted that testimony regarding prior assaults may assist the jury in understanding the dynamics of the domestic violence relationship and in assessing the alleged victim’s credibility.

The jury found the Defendant guilty. He timely appealed. The WA Court of Appeals granted review to resolve the issues presented.


ER 404(b) Evidence

The Court of Appeals reasoned 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 were correct. The alleged victim’s testimony as to how the Defendant 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, the court found that the complainant’s professed shame and fear associated with forced prostitution was an important factor for the jury to consider.

Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

The Court illustrated how 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 the Defendant’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, the Defendant’s 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.”

The Defendant 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 defense counsel. With that, the Court of Appeals held that Woods was not prejudiced and upheld his conviction.

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