Should Rape Shield Laws Bar Proof that the Alleged Victim Has Made Similar, Untruthful Rape Accusations in the Past?: Fair Symmetry with the Rape Sword Laws
Pacific Law Journal, Forthcoming
39 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2016
Date Written: February 11, 2016
Traditionally, the common law enforced a general ban on character evidence. More specifically, the common law prohibited a proponent from introducing evidence of a person’s other conduct as proof of the person’s character trait and then using the trait as proof that on a particular relevant occasion, the person acted consistently with the trait. The prohibition applied to both sides in criminal as well as civil cases. Federal Rules 404-05 extend the prohibition to evidence on the historical merits, and to an extent Rules 608-09 apply the ban to evidence offered on a credibility theory. Rule 608(b) deviates from the ban by permitting cross-examination about a witness’s other untruthful acts but bars extrinsic evidence of the acts.
In 1995 Congress enacted the “rape sword” statutes, Rules 413-14. The statutes carve out an exception to the traditional prohibition and allow the prosecution to introduce evidence of an accused’s other sexual assaults or child molestations on a character theory to prove the accused’s commission of the charged offense. The available psychological research does not warrant drawing a character inference when there is only one or a few other instances of similar conduct. However, the proponents of the statutes contend that the statutes are defensible because these prosecutions often devolve into swearing contests and the prosecution has a legitimate need for evidence to break the credibility tie by corroborating the victim’s testimony that the offense occurred.
Especially since 1995, in these prosecutions the defense has attempted to introduce evidence, including extrinsic testimony, of similar, untruthful accusations by the complainant. However, the prosecution has objected that such evidence runs afoul of the prohibitions in Rules 404-05, 608, and 412, the rape shield statute. A few jurisdictions have construed these statutes as banning the defense evidence. However, many jurisdictions allow defense cross-examination about similar, untruthful accusations. Even in these jurisdictions, though, the courts ordinarily exclude extrinsic proof.
The first thesis of this article is that the courts should permit cross-examination when the defense has sufficient proof that the prior accusation was untruthful. Like prosecution evidence proffered under Rules 413-14, this evidence is logically relevant on a character reasoning theory.
Moreover, if the proponents of the rape sword statutes are correct, like the government the defense has an acute need for evidence to prevail in the swearing contest. Just as evidence of other offenses by the accused corroborates the complainant’s testimony that the accused attacked him or her, evidence of the complainant’s prior, untruthful accusations corroborates the accused’s testimony that the complainant has fabricated the charge against the accused.
The second thesis of this article is that as a matter of policy, extrinsic evidence of the prior similar accusations should be admissible. Admittedly, Rule 608(b) purports to enunciate an absolute ban on extrinsic evidence of prior untruthful acts. However, Rule 608(b) is the only impeachment technique subject to a rigid, absolute prohibition of extrinsic evidence; and the wisdom of singling out 608(b) impeachment is questionable. Furthermore, the accused has an extraordinary need for extrinsic evidence in 413-14 cases. Women and children who are the alleged victims of these offenses are exceptionally sympathetic figures on the witness stand; and if the defense cannot disprove the alleged victim’s denial on cross-examination, the cross-examination is likely to be counterproductive – the jurors may conclude that the cross-examination was a second, cruel victimization of the complainant. At least in this context, if the law is going to permit inquiry about prior, untruthful accusations, the defense ought to have the right to resort to extrinsic evidence.
The rape sword statutes impact the balance of the criminal justice system in Rule 413-14 prosecutions. To maintain the essential balance of the adversary system in these cases, Evidence law should permit the defense to introduce extrinsic evidence of the complainant’s prior, similar, untruthful accusations.
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