Oral Argument Preview: The Use of “Other Acts” Evidence in Sex Crimes. State v. Van Williams.

Update: On December 6, 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a merit decision in this case.  Read the analysis here.

Read the analysis of the oral argument here.

On September 25, 2012 the Supreme Court of Ohio will hear oral argument in the case of State v. Williams, 2011-2094.  The case will be argued at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland as part of the Court’s off-site program.

The Williams case involves the use of “other acts” evidence in a sex crime case.  Under Evid.R. 404(B), it is improper to use evidence of other crimes to show that a person acted the same way again, but such acts can be used for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident.

Issue

The issue in this case is whether evidence of other similar acts is admissible pursuant to Evid. R. 404 (B) to demonstrate a scheme, plan, or system when the evidence is not part of the immediate background of the present crime and the offender’s identity is not at issue.

Background

In 2009, Van Williams was charged with sixty-one counts of various sex crimes for carrying on a sexual relationship with “J.H.” who was fourteen and fifteen when these crimes occurred. Before trial, the state indicated its intent to admit into evidence prior allegations of sexual abuse committed by Williams against “A.B,” another teenage boy. Defense counsel filed a motion in limine to prevent such evidence.  After a hearing outside the presence of the jury mid-trial, the trial court allowed the evidence in, finding (1) the evidence would show that Williams’ intent was sexual gratification, (2) the state had the right to rebut defense testimony that Williams was not attracted to males, (3) the evidence of sexual conduct with A.B. showed Williams’ motive in committing the acts against J.H., and (4) the probative value outweighed prejudice to Williams. Williams was convicted of twenty-three counts and sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Appellate Decision

The Eighth District Court of Appeals sitting en banc reversed. As to the intent issue, it explained that the testimony of prior sexual acts with A.B. was irrelevant to the elements of the state’s case against Williams for his acts against J.H. As to the “scheme or plan” issue, the court held that under State v. Curry, 43 Ohio St.2d 66 (1975), prior acts evidence can only be used to show the background of the alleged crime or identity. When it is used to show identity, other acts evidence must be so similar in “modus operandi” to the alleged crime as to make it likely that the same defendant committed both crimes. It held that the exception to the rule against prior acts evidence does not extend to other acts committed in a similar way for an unrelated offense when the identity of the perpetrator is not at issue. The court also held the prejudicial effect of the evidence outweighed any probative value.

State’s argument

The State has appealed to the Supreme Court of Ohio. It argues that evidence of prior instances of sexual abuse committed by a defendant are admissible to show intent, where intent is an element of the charged crime and both acts are committed against teenage boys of similar ages. Because Williams had placed his intent at issue through his own admissions, the prior acts should have been admitted to show Williams’ intent to achieve sexual gratification. In addition, the state argues that evidence demonstrating a defendant’s pattern of isolating child victims and grooming them to become his victims is admissible to show a unique plan to commit a sexual crime, regardless of whether it shows identity. It points out that State v. Curry was decided before Rule 404(B) was established, and is no longer controlling where the state seeks to introduce prior acts evidence to show a scheme or plan and the defendant’s identity is not at issue.

Defendant’s  Argument

In response, Williams argues that evidence of a defendant’s prior sexual relationship is not admissible to prove “intent” or “plan” if it is introduced only to show a propensity to engage in sex with young men.  Such evidence is permissible only to prove either identity or the immediate background of the offense charged.  He argues that the type of “intent” covered by Rule 404(B) must have some limit to prevent the admission of pure propensity evidence. The appropriate limit is to admit “plan” evidence to show only two types of plans: repeated and idiosyncratic  plans that show the identity of a perpetrator, and events leading up to the current charge that show the plan to commit the crime.

State’s proposed proposition of law

Other acts evidence of prior instances of sexual abuse  committed by a defendant are admissible to show his intent, where intent is an element of the statute and both acts are committed against teenage boys of similar ages.

Key Precedent – State v. Curry, 43 Ohio St.2d 66 (1975)

Curry was decided before the Ohio Rules of Evidence were enacted. The defendant was charged with rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. The trial judge admitted evidence that the defendant had previously molested a young girl. The Supreme Court of Ohio held that the evidence was inadmissible and highly prejudicial. Because the only issue at trial was whether the defendant had committed rape, neither the defendant’s motive, intent, absence of mistake or accident, scheme, plan, or method of doing an act were  relevant to the case. The Court explained that, assuming the truth of the prosecutor’s “other acts” testimony, the prior conduct of the defendant did not tend to prove that he intended to commit rape in the case at  bar. Thus, the admission of “other acts” testimony constituted prejudicial error, and the Court reversed and remanded for a new trial.

Curry syllabus

Evidence of other acts of a criminal defendant is admissible, pursuant to R.C. 2945.59, (ed. note-predecessor to Evid. R. 404 (B)) only if one or more of the matters enumerated in the statute is a material issue at trial and only if such evidence tends to show the material enumerated matter.

Student contributor: Greg Kendall

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