State v. Sutherby: Great Case Regarding Improper Prosecution and Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Malicious Prosecution Cases in South Carolina - King Law

In State v. Sutherby, the WA Supreme Court threw out a Rape of a Child conviction for improper prosecution and ineffective counsel. Shortly before Christmas 2004, the Sutherby’s five-year-old granddaughter (“L.K.”) stayed with them for two nights at their Grays Harbor home. Based on the girl’s accusations, Mr. Sutherby was arrested and charged with multiple sex offenses to include first degree rape of a child and first degree child molestation.

A subsequent search of his personal computer found child pornography, and he was charged with 10 counts of possession of depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. He was convicted by a jury on all counts and appealed.

The Court here considered two issues: “(1) what is the proper unit of prosecution for possession of child pornography under former RCW 9.68A.070 (1990), and (2) did Sutherby receive ineffective assistance of counsel due to his trial attorney’s failure to seek a severance of the child rape and molestation charges from the possession of child pornography charges?”

Sutherby argued that he should have been sentenced on only one count of possession of child pornography under the criminal statute, formerly RCW 9.68A.070, rather that separate counts for each image. The court noted that the U.S. and Washington constitutions both protect a defendant from being punished more than once for the same offense. The statute provided “[a] person who knowingly possesses visual or printed matter depicting a minor engaged in sexually explicit conduct is guilty of a class C felony.”

The court said that “any” is vague, and determined defendants who possess multiple images should only be charged with a single count of possession. The court remanded the sentencing of Sutherby for a single count of possession.

Sutherby also sought reversal of his convictions for child rape and child molestation based on his trial attorney’s failure to move for severance of the child pornography counts from these charges. As the court noted, severance of charges is important when there is a risk that the jury will use the evidence of one crime to infer the defendant’s guilt for another crime or to infer a general criminal disposition.

The case against Sutherby for possession of child pornography was strong, and could have influenced the jury on the rape and molestation charges. The court agreed that Sutherby demonstrated ineffective assistance of counsel based on his trial attorney’s failure to seek severance of the charges. The Supreme Court reversed Sutherby’s convictions for child rape and molestation and remanded for retrial.

My opinion?  Yes, society HATES sex crimes; especially when children are possibly involved.  Here, however, the Supremes correctly looked beyond the nature of the crime and addressed how the case was botched by the Prosecutor and defense attorney alike.  Clearly, the Supremes sent a message: stacking charge after charge is, simply, unconstitutional.  Multiple images does not = multiple charges!  We creep into the realm of  unlawful Double Jeopardy.

Additionally, State v. Sutherby teaches defense attorneys about ineffective assistance of counsel.  Oftentimes, prosecutors will try adding additional charges on totally unrelated events before trial.  This tactic, if successfully done, makes juries suspicious that the defendant “must be a bad person, otherwise they wouldn’t have acquired all these criminal charges.”

In other words, the juries become prejudiced toward the defendant, and might decide the cases accordingly.  This type of outcome kills justice.  Defense attorneys must avoid sloppiness and BE CAREFUL.  We cannot allow the State to unfairly prejudice our clients at the 11th hour before trial.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.