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Round 2 on Mom Abuse Rarity Appeal

In State v. Knudsen, the Iowa Court of Appeals on November 7, 2018, accepted appellant’s request for rehearing and vacated its October 10, 2018, opinion entirely. Read more about that opinion here.

In Knudsen, the Defendant argued that he was denied necessary expert testimony on the rarity of “mom abuse” arguing it was made even more rare in his case by the mother’s steadfast support of the victim in a prior prosecution, jury trial, and conviction of another suspect. The trial court excluded expert testimony on that “rarity” issue but allowed limited testimony on the issue that the source of injuries the victim may have sustained from an alternative suspect because the State “opened the door” when a sexual assault nurse examiner was allowed to testify to possible healed injuries consistent with sexual trauma. Such source of injuries is an express exception to the rule that prior sexual conduct is inadmissible pursuant to the so-called “rape shield” rule.

On rehearing, the Defendant reasserted the application of the so-called “rape shield” law preventing him from fully exploring the prosecution and conviction of an unrelated defendant in the sexual abuse of the same victim in his case denied to him due process and the right to a fair trial. The State argued that he only raised that issue recently and not in the trial court below, thus waiving that argument and, therefore, unfairly surprising the government late in the appeals process. This argument is commonly referred to as failing to “preserve error.”

The Court of Appeals disagreed, stating that the evidentiary objection included a constitutional component and therefore took up the matter. The defendant maintained his purpose of fully exploring the prior abuse of the victim by an unrelated perpetrator was to challenge the victim’s credibility. The Court did not value this purpose higher than another stating:

“In determining whether the admission of evidence is prohibited by the rule,

we do not consider the defendant’s motive for introducing the evidence,” the Court reiterated, adding, “[i]n either case, the victim’s privacy is invaded and for that

reason the rule applies.” Citing to State v. Mitchell, 568 N.W.2d 493, 497 (1997).

However, the Court also chastised the Knudsen defendant’s “credibility” purpose for introducing the past abuse—citing to a 2016 Montana decision that recognized “a rape victim’s prior sexual history is irrelevant to … the victim’s propensity for truthfulness.” The Court of Appeals thus on rehearing reaffirmed its decision not to allow the defendant to fully explore the past abuse.

The Court of Appeals on rehearing also agreed with the district court that expert testimony on the “rarity” of “mom abuse” was more prejudicial than probative. It held that the jury, not experts, are there to decide who is credible, quoting a 2014 Iowa Supreme Court decision when it held that “expert testimony is not admissible merely to bolster credibility.” (quoting State v. Dudley, 856 N.W.2d 668, 676 (Iowa 2014)).

The Court had a bigger problem with sentencing enhancements that did not follow a recent decision requiring a detailed exchange among the defendant, counsel, and the judge at the sentencing. These enhancements carried life sentences in some of the counts and the Court of Appeals decided the convictions must be reversed for a resentencing that either allowed him to enter into knowing, voluntary stipulations that the sentences carried serious sentencing enhancements—or, in the alternative, force a trial on the issue of the enhancements themselves. Therefore, the Knudsen defendant remains convicted as of now but the case is remanded to the district court for those matters. This case is expected to produce more district court record and, likely, 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 consult. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending information to a lawyer over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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