August 20, 2018

Colorado Court of Appeals: Whether Minor Initiated Sexual Contact is Irrelevant Under Sexual Assault on a Child Statutes

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Sparks on Thursday, January 11, 2018.

Sexual Assault—Child—Prosecutorial Misconduct—Sufficiency of Evidence—Hearsay—Jury Instructions—Video Interview of Defendant.

Sparks attended a party at his wife’s cousin’s house. The cousin’s daughter, A.M., reported that while she was at the party and Skyping on her computer, Sparks touched her breast over her clothing. She also reported that as she was Skyping, her friend S.F. (the victim) and Sparks were behind her, and that through her computer’s camera she saw the victim grabbing Sparks’s groin area and making other movements. At the time, A.M. was 14 and the victim was 13. Sparks admitted to what A.M. reported and to touching the victim’s groin, breast, and bottom area. Sparks was convicted of one count of sexual assault on a child as to the victim.

On appeal, Sparks contended that the prosecutor engaged in misconduct by misstating the law and evidence during closing argument. Specifically, Sparks asserted it was error for the prosecutor to tell the jury that it did not matter that the victim initiated the sexual contact, arguing that C.R.S. § 18-3-405(1), the sexual assault on a child statute, required the prosecution to prove that he caused the victim to become subservient or subordinate or that the child victim initiated the sexual contact at his directive. Sexual contact includes the touching of the defendant’s intimate parts by the victim. The phrase “subjects another . . . to any sexual contact” in the statute does not require the People to prove that defendant caused the child-victim to become “subservient or subordinate” or that the child-victim initiated the sexual contact at defendant’s directive. There was no error in the prosecutor’s statement to the jury.

Sparks also argued that the prosecutor misstated the evidence by saying A.M. saw improper sexual contact between the victim and Sparks through a computer camera while on Skype and that Sparks knew exactly how old the victim was. As discussed below, the court did not err in admitting this evidence, and given this evidence, the prosecutor did not misstate nor draw improper inferences from it.

Sparks further contended that the prosecution failed to produce sufficient evidence to prove that he committed sexual assault on a child because the only evidence as to the victim’s age was inadmissible. He contended that the court erred in admitting the detective’s and A.M.’s testimony and Sparks’s interview statement about the victim’s age because these were hearsay. All of this evidence was admitted without objection. A.M.’s testimony may have been based on her personal knowledge or the victim’s reputed age, and thus would not have been hearsay or would have fallen within a hearsay exception. Thus, the trial court’s ruling on A.M.’s testimony was not erroneous, much less obviously so. Similarly, the basis for the detective’s testimony could not be determined, but the court of appeals could not conclude that the trial court’s admission of this testimony was obviously erroneous. And even assuming that admitting this testimony was obvious error, such error would be harmless in light of A.M.’s testimony and Sparks’s interview statement. CRE 805 does not apply to Sparks’s interview admission because as a party opponent his statement does not require firsthand knowledge to be admissible. It was not plain error to admit the evidence, and it was sufficient.

Sparks also asserted that the court abused its discretion by instructing the jury that it could assign his interview video any weight it wanted when the court provided the video to the jury during deliberations. The court did not instruct the jury to give Sparks’s statements any weight it wanted. Further, no special protections against undue emphasis as to a defendant’s out-of-court statements were required. Lastly, the court provided specific instructions for the jury to follow in viewing the evidence, and thus appropriately exercised its discretion.

Sparks further contended that the trial court denied him his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel by providing his interview video to the jury during deliberations without notifying his counsel. The court agreed, but concluded this error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

The judgment of conviction was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

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