Some of the most difficult cases for everyone involved are those in which there are allegations of inappropriate sexual touching (or worse) of a child by an adult. These cases are horrible for obvious reasons and for some less obvious reasons. Aside from the impact the actions have on the child if the allegations are true, even if the allegations are untrue the trauma of whatever led to the false allegation, the police and child services investigations, the hearings, the trial and the other events over the course of years cause their own damage on the child and everyone involved. No one is ever comfortable discussing these issues in court – not the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney or the jurors. It gets done because it has to get done. These cases also present unique evidentiary problems because of the age of the victims, the susceptibility of all witnesses to outside influences upon their memories, and the nature of the allegations.
In State. v. R.Y., decided on May 6, 2020, the Supreme Court of New Jersey addressed the intersection of several of these evidentiary issues: specifically, the Rape Shield Law, evidence of third-party guilt and hearsay evidence. R.Y. was accused of improper sexual touching of two children, who the Court refers to as Briana and Sharie. During the investigation, a worker from child services asked Sharie who touched her, to which Sharie replied it was a man named Darren – Darren was not R.Y. During the trial, the State moved to prevent the child services worker from repeating Sharie’s statement about Darren before the jury. The trial judge granted that motion. R.Y. was convicted of endangering the welfare of both girls and of aggravated sexual assault of both girls. R.Y. appealed; the Appellate Division affirmed R.Y.’s convictions but found the Rape Shield Law did not apply. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
The Court held the Rape Shield Law did not apply. The Rape Shield Law prevents a defendant from introducing evidence of the victim’s prior sexual conduct with persons other than the defendant. The law is intended to prevent disparaging the victim and presenting defenses based on the vicitm’s promiscuity, work as a prostitute, prior victimization, etc. The evidence in question here, the vicitm’s statement that a person other than the Defendant committed the criminal act, was not subject to the Rape Shield Law because it goes to the essential fact of the case – who committed the crime, rather than the victim’s character.
Having concluded the Rape Shield Law does not apply, the Court addressed whether the evidence would properly be admitted as evidence of Third Party Guilt. In order to admit such evidence, it must have a rational tendency to engender a reasonable doubt about an essential aspect of the State’s case. Here, the statement, if accepted, would certainly raise doubt as to who committed the offense because the victim identified a person other than the defendant. Lastly, the Court evaluated whether the statement would be admissible pursuant to the rules of evidence for hearsay and concluded it would be as a prior inconsistent statement.
Based on these conclusions that the statement should have been admitted, the Court reversed R.Y.’s convictions for actions against Sharie, but affirmed the convictions relating to the other child.
In all criminal cases, understanding the rules of evidence, individually and as they intersect, is an essential role of the defense attorney. Following Supreme Court and Appellate Division caselaw interpreting those rules on a regular basis is an absolute requirement. If you or someone you know is charged with a crime such as endangering the welfare of a child in Jersey City or anywhere in New Jersey, call the Law Office of Eric M. Mark for assistance.