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Past abuse, expert opinion about "rare" mom abuse properly excluded, court says

Scales of Justice
Courts attempt to strike a balance between a Defendant's right to a fair trial and distracting side issues and improper character evidence. Courts typically have wide discretion in making such evidentiary decisions. The Iowa Court of Appeals discusses one such decision here.

In State v. Knudsen, a 3-judge panel of the Iowa Court of Appeals examined whether a jury trial judge in a sex abuse case wrongly applied the so-called “rape shield” law to exclude a prior abuse accusation. The appeals court also explored whether the trial court abused its discretion by denying to defendant his requested expert testimony regarding the rarity of abuse involving biological mothers.

The appeals court noted that defendants are typically barred from introducing evidence of a victim's "other sexual behavior" under a rule colloquially referred to as "rape shield." The rule allows only limited exceptions including the source of injuries alleged. In this case, the prosecution offered scientific evidence of alleged injuries during the course of trial prompting the trial judge to allow a limited defense rebuttal with evidence of a prior abuse accusation to offer an alternative source of the alleged injuries. But the jury trial judge did not allow further exploration into a jury trial of another defendant, or the accuser's mother's emotional support during same, unrelated to the Knudsen defendant, nor expert testimony to explain why the type of allegation made in this case was "rare."

Defendant wished to argue it was "rare" because the victim alleged that her mother participated in the recent abuse even though the mother had previously supported her daughter in the jury trial accusation of sex abuse involving a different perpetrator. The Knudsen defendant wanted expert testimony to prove this was unlikely.

The Court noted that a fairly recent amendment to Iowa R. Evid. Pro. 5.412 from 2017 prohibits the introduction of “evidence of a victim’s other sexual behavior.” The Court recounted the Iowa Supreme Court’s Albert 2006 decision defining “past sexual behavior,” the rule’s prior language, as “volitional or nonvolitional physical act that the victim has performed for the purpose of the sexual stimulation or gratification of either the victim or another person.”

Early in the jury trial, the judge prohibited introduction of such evidence ruling on an advance prosecution motion to bar the subject matter during trial. However, the court revisited that ruling in part when a sexual assault nurse examiner testified that the alleged sex abuse victim may have had an injury consistent with sexual abuse—thus opening the door to prior sex acts by someone else as the source of said injury.

The trial court judge allowed some—but not all— of the Knudsen defendant’s discussion of acts of previous sexual abuse against the victim not attributed to the defendant. Defendant was allowed to cross examine the victim and others about prior abuse allegations and argued in closing arguments that the source of purported injuries to defendant could have been the other accused.

However, the defendant also asked the judge to allow him to argue that the accuser's mother, who came to the victim’s defense in that prior abuse allegation and unrelated jury trial of another defendant, was now with the defendant being accused of participation—and that this was unlikely and “rare.” He also wanted to offer expert testimony on this point. The trial judge did not allow the defendant to go that far.

The panel decision held that (1) the prior abuse was rape shield protected material; (2) the jury trial court had already allowed some testimony regarding the prior abuse under the “injury” exception; (3) further testimony was more prejudicial than probative to the issues before the jury.

The court further held that the expert testimony sought by defendant would have invaded the role of the jury in determining credibility of the accuser by pitting the “rarity” of such accusations against the victim’s assertion that it did indeed occur.

The 3-judge panel wrote, “Knudsen is correct that credibility is an important issue in a sexual abuse case, but that does not mean it is his constitutional right to place the victim on trial.”

The Knudsen defendant also challenged the precision and formality of sentencing enhancements. On those sentencing enhancements and the hearing to impose them, the court found for the defendant and reversed and remanded for a hearing on those matters.

The defendant-appellant is likely to pursue additional levels of appeal.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Knudsen case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for a criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact David A. Cmelik Law PLC for a free initial consultation. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending information to an attorney over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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