Throughout life, we all sometimes make poor decisions. Sometimes, we make very poor decisions, and occasionally, we may be forced to stand trial. But when a defendant stands before the court, it’s important that he be made to answer for current charges, without unduly coloring his reputation by prior “bad acts.”
The basic question before the courts in Alabama in the case of R.C.W. v. Alabama was whether a jury should be allowed to weigh prior bad acts in determining the likelihood and punishment for more recent bad acts.
The trial court determined that, yes, they should be considered. The appellate court believed no, they shouldn’t. The Alabama Supreme Court more recently returned a divided verdict, reversing the appellate court’s decision.
This case will likely have a bearing on many future sexual assault cases in Alabama, as it holds similarities to many of the cases our Birmingham sexual assault defense lawyers encounter on a regular basis.
The case begins with an 18-year-old woman who alleges her biological father began sexually assaulting her when she was in the fourth grade. The abuse stopped temporarily when she was 13, after she informed her mother of what was happening and her mother confronted him. Still, the alleged crimes were not reported to authorities, allegedly for the sake of maintaining stability in the family for the younger brother.
However, conflict arose in the family again when the daughter struck up a relationship with an older man, and that’s when allegations once again bubbled to the surface, and authorities were contacted. It was at that time that the defendant’s ex-wife came forward to allege that while she was married to him, he sexually assaulted her daughter and his own biological daughter for several years.
Prior to trial, the state filed notice that it intended to present evidence of the past alleged sexual assaults. The defense argued that such evidence wasn’t necessary, was too remote, and because motive, identity and intent were not contested. Further, defense counsel argued, it would prejudice the jury more than it would have any evidentiary value. The court sided with the prosecution.
At trial, both girls (now women) testified to the alleged assaults.
Prior to the close of trial, the judge gave a charge to the jury, stating in part, “You have heard testimony regarding crimes, wrongs or bad acts regarding the defendant. (He’s) only on trial for the criminal charges I have read you in the indictments – not for anything else… He may or may not be a bad person or a person of bad character likely to commit more crimes… “He went on to say that the evidence of other crimes was entered into evidence for the narrow purpose of determining the defendant’s motive, opportunity, intent or plan.
Defense counsel objected, on the grounds the evidence did not serve that purpose.
The judge overruled, and the defendant was convicted on charges of first-degree rape, first-degree sexual abuse, two counts of first-degree sodomy. As a habitual felony offender, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
He appealed. He argued that admission of testimony by his other two daughters (collateral evidence) was a reversible error because the purposes were never placed in issue at trial.
While the appellate court found that such testimony might establish motive (i.e., an unnatural sexual desire for small children living in his household), it was reversible because the trial court had allowed the jury to consider the evidence on the other issues (intent, opportunity and plan).
The entire conviction was reversed.
The state appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court.
Although the high court was divided, with both sides finding that the trial court had committed a reversible error, the state supreme court ultimately reinstated the convictions. The court applied the harmless-error analysis because the evidence was still technically allowable for consideration, citing the 2010 finding in Billups v. State.