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!