Monday, October 4, 2010

Context is Everything: Court Allows Exceptions to VRE 404(b)

The Court affirms the conviction of aggravated domestic assault, finding that the trial court did not err in admitting evidence of prior assaults. 

Complainant and Defendant began their tremulous love affair in November of 2006, while the Complainant was a teenager and had a child from another relationship.  Complainant ended the relationship with Defendant in February of 2008 while she was pregnant with Defendant’s child.  Soon after the split, Complainant obtained a relief-from-abuse order prohibiting Defendant from contacting her.  In September of 2008, she gave birth to a baby girl.

In November of 2008, Defendant was insistent upon seeing his child and enraged with Complainant.  He let himself into her apartment in Bennington and became violent.  Defendant grabbed Complainant by the throat and shouted that he was going to kill her.  Instead of carrying out his threat, Defendant left the apartment, but not before warning Complainant that she better not contact the police or he would harm her family.  Complainant did contact the police the next day, which led to Defendant’s conviction at issue in this appeal.

This was not the first time Defendant assaulted Complainant, having struck, choked, and punched Complainant on two prior occasions.  Defendant objected to the admission of such evidence, arguing that any probative value was substantially outweighed by its unfair prejudicial effect.  The trial court did not buy the argument and ruled that the evidence was relevant and admissible to provide the jury with a “context within which to assess claims of domestic violence” within the parties’ relationship.

The Court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the prior bad acts in as evidence.  The standard for admitting prior bad acts is as follows: the State has the burden of proving that the evidence shows more than a propensity to commit the crime charged, and is relevant to a separate issue in the case.  If the State proves this, probative wins out over potential prejudice.  Here, such prior bad acts were essential to show the nature of the parties’ relationship, and to explain Complainant’s decisions to remain with an abusive partner and delay in reporting the abuse.  Additionally, the prior bad acts addressed issues of motive and claims of fabrication. Given the value of the evidence, the Court agreed with the trial court in finding that any unfair prejudice was outweighed. 

However, the Court did take time to chide the trial court for ruling on the issue pre-trial since motions in limine are based on alleged facts rather than actual sets of facts.  The Court noted that it is better for trial courts to wait until trial and a factual context is developed, instead of assuming what may happen.  Despite this criticism, given the broad discretion trial courts have to admit evidence, the Court let this one slide. 

Christine Mathias

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