December 17, 2017

Tenth Circuit: Sexual Assault Victim’s Prior Mental Health History Not Even Marginally Relevant to Assault at Issue

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. John on February 27, 2017.

Defendant and the victim were related. At trial, the victim testified to the following facts: The victim was in the shower when Defendant showed up at her house. He started undressing in front of the shower door while the victim was still in the shower. Defendant moved towards the victim and the victim struggled to get away. Defendant pulled the towel away from the victim and pushed her head toward his “private parts.” The victim was able to get away from Defendant and grabbed a blanket before running outside. When outside, the victim called the police. Officers arrived after Defendant had left. The officers found the shower door tilted and the bathroom trashcan turned over. No forensic testing occurred. Defendant was convicted on one count of attempted aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country and one count of abusive sexual contact in Indian county after a jury trial.

At trial, Defendant wanted to cross-examine the victim about an incident that occurred in Phoenix. The district court did not allow the line of questioning and the Defendant challenged the courts ruling on appeal claiming it violated his Confrontation Clause rights under the Sixth Amendment and his right to present a complete defense under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.

The Tenth Circuit summarized the facts of the Phoenix incident that it obtained from police reports. The victim had visited her sister in Phoenix. She alleged that her sister pressured her to drink. After the two argued, the victim tried to cut her writs. She was then taken to the hospital where she was transferred to an inpatient behavioral-health unit after telling the staff that she had been having suicidal thoughts for two years. During intake, she denied using any illicit substances, even though she told emergency staff that she used marijuana. The intake staff determined she had a mood disorder, but she was discharged without any medication needed. The victim’s sister denied to police that she gave the victim alcohol or coerced her to drink. Because the police could not determine how the victim got the alcohol, they closed the case.

On appeal, the Defendant argued that the Phoenix incident showed that the victim would falsely accuse him of sexual assault given her poorly controlled behavior and drug use revealed by the incident. It also would show her propensity to lie and accuse family members. These facts could have led the jury to draw “vital inferences” in his favor.

The Tenth Circuit held that because the Defendant only argued at trial that the Phoenix incident would show that the victim had an impaired ability to perceive events, and not the reasons given on appeal, Defendant was precluded from arguing such reasons on appeal. In fact, the Tenth Circuit points to the fact that Defendant’s counsel rejected the possibility of using the Phoenix incident for the reasons stated on appeal, which the Tenth Circuit held was an “intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right.”

The Tenth Circuit held that Defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to confrontation was not violated because that right is not unlimited. The Supreme Court has held that trial judges retain wide latitude to impose reasonable limits on cross-examination based on concerns about harassment, prejudice, and confusion of the issues. The Tenth Circuit held that the Phoenix incident was not even marginally relevant to the victim’s ability to remember or relate the shower incident. It would not show that the victim was on drugs at the time of the shower incident. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that no lay person could draw those inferences.

Next, the Tenth Circuit addressed the Defendant’s challenges to three jury instructs concerning the assessment of evidence.

The first challenged instruction stated: “The testimony of the complaining witness need not be corroborated if the jury believes the complaining witness beyond a reasonable doubt.” Defendant argued that the instruction did no accurately reflect the government’s burden of proving each element of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it properly informed the jury that it could convict on the basis of the testimony of a single witness, only if they believed that witness. Further, another instruction told the jurors that they could not convict unless they found each element of each offense beyond reasonable doubt.

The second challenged instruction stated: “An attorney has the right to interview a witness for the purpose of learning what testimony the witness will give. The fact that a witness has talked to an attorney does not reflect adversely to the truth of such testimony.” Defendant argued that this instruction insulated from the jury’s scrutiny the cross-examination of the victim about being improperly influenced by the prosecutor. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by giving this instruction because it did not prevent defense counsel from making a commonsense suggestion that inappropriate coaching influenced the witness, which the counsel actually made.

The final challenged instruction stated: “You may infer, but you are certainly not required to infer, that a person intends the natural and probably consequences of acts knowingly done or knowingly omitted.” Defendant argues that this instruction was ambiguous, because it was not stated which element the instruction was meant to modify, and that it was confusing because it created uncertainty as to the requisite level of intent. The Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion by issuing this instruction because the court made clear to the jury that the burden was on the government to prove the requisite intent beyond a reasonable doubt.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit held that the district court did not err in declining to instruct the jury that it could consider the lesser-included charge of simple assault, rather than just the charges of attempted aggravated sexual abuse and abusive sexual contact. The district court held that there was no evidence that the encounter was anything but sexual. The Tenth Circuit affirmed this decision holding that the jury could reasonably have found that the alleged incident did not occur, but that there was no reasonable grounds for believing that Defendant assaulted the victim but with no sexual intent.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

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