August 30, 2011

Colorado Court of Appeals criminal law decision 8-18-11 People v. Jones


People v. Jones               Rule 404(b) - Doctrine of Chances and Similarities
Facts: Mr. Jones supposedly sexually assaulted Ms. J.R. a white woman with blond hair. The assault occurred in the early morning hours. Mr. Jones ran consent as a defense. Ms. J.R. did not have any visible injuries, but according to the SANE whore, J.R. had a tear in her vagina that was consistent with consensual and non-consensual sex. The prosecution sought and the trial court admitted two other sexual assaults where Mr. Jones was the alleged assailant, one on I.B. and another on K.U.
The assault on I.B. occurred in Miami just around midnight. I.B. was a white woman blond hair. I.B. claimed she had drinks, went to her hotel room around midnight, and woke up a short time later with an unknown man in her hotel room. She then claimed she “blacked out” after the unknown man put something over her face. According to CofA, three men then carried I.B. out to a car, where one man undressed her, and Mr. Jones (she identified him at trial) sexually assaulted her vaginally and anally, and forced her to perform oral sex. Afterward, three men beat her, stole her jewelry, demanded bank accounts, and “forced her to drink strong alcoholic beverage”.  I.B. claimed the beating was so severe that she needed reconstructive surgery and stitches.
K.U. testified that, while visiting New Orleans, she was walking back to her hotel around 3:00 am when an unknown man (she said at trial it was Mr. Jones) pulled over and offered a ride. She claimed when she got in the car she fell asleep. K.U. then claimed the unknown man drove to an unfamiliar location. K.U. claimed she tried to run, but the unknown man caught her, put his hand over her mouth and vaginally sexually assaulted her. K.U. claimed the assailant was pretty rough, and she ended up with scratches on her back and legs. K.U. is white and apparently blond.
The jury convicted Mr. Jones and the trial court sentenced him to 24 years to life.
Issue: Whether the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the assault on I.B and K.U. under the guise of 404(b)?
Held: Yes.
Reasoning: The CofA went through the four elements of the Spoto/Garner test the prosecution needed to establish in order to admit the evidence:
(1) The evidence relates to a material fact. Here the defense conceded the evidence related to a material fact- whether J.R. consented.
(2) The evidence is logically relevant. The CofA states, “In a sexual assault prosecution, evidence of the defendant's other alleged sexual assaults may be logically relevant under the ‘doctrine of chances.’” In that, “[t]his doctrine posits that evidence that a defendant repeatedly performed an unusual act over time decreases the probability that he acted accidentally or innocently.” ‘The more often the defendant performs the actus reus, the smaller is the likelihood that the defendant acted with an innocent state of mind. The recurrence of repetition of the act increases the likelihood of a mens rea or mind at fault.’” Thus, the other two assaults were logically relevant.
(3) The logical relevance is independent of the intermediate inference that the defendant was acting in conformity with his bad character. If the evidence is logically relevant under the “doctrine of chances”, then the priors  must be: (1) similar to the alleged assault; (2) “the number of unusual occurrences in which the defendant has been involved exceeds the frequency rate for the general population”; and (3) “there is a genuine dispute between the prosecution and the defense over whether the actus reus occurred.“ The CofA emphasized “A dissimilar prior act is not probative under the doctrine of chances because it is the improbability of a like result being repeated by mere chance that gives the other act its probative weight.”
Here, the trial court did a piss poor job of stating its reasons for admitting the evidence and simply admitted the evidence to show “common plan, scheme, or design, and to rebut the defense of consent.” The CofA took great care to skewer this idiotic blanket reasoning (and reasoning DAs use with nauseating frequency). The CofA found if admissible under common plan, scheme, or design, then the evidence must not only be similar in result, “but such occurrence of common features that the various acts are naturally to be explained as caused by a general plan of which the charged crime and the prior misconduct are the individual manifestations.” Further, “to be admissible to rebut the defense of consent, evidence of the prior acts should ‘establish a compelling pattern and remarkable similarity of [the] defendant's sexual misconduct.’” The CofA then listed the dissimilarities: extent of the injuries on J.R. vs. I.B; the amount of force used on K.U. and I.B. vs. J.R.; the CofA pointed out that a group assault I.B. but not K.U. or J.R.; Unlike K.U. and I.B., J.R. was not staying at a hotel. Further, the CofA discounted the similarities, “Most of these similarities—that the women were white and blonde, and were assaulted in the early morning hours after drinking—are common to many sexual assaults and not 'dissimilar from the methods generally used in such an offense.'" Moreover, the assailant in K.U. and J.R. held his hand over their mouths during the assault, but the CofA found this to be an insufficient basis to justify admission of the assault on K.U..
The Court reversed Mr. Jones' conviction and stated, “We also conclude that the district court's abuse of discretion in admitting evidence of the two alleged prior assaults was not harmless. The People presented their case over four days at trial. However, they introduced evidence about the alleged assault on J.R. only on the first day, and used the bulk of the remaining three days to present evidence about the other two alleged prior assaults. There were no witnesses to the alleged assault; indeed, there were no witnesses who even saw defendant and J.R. together. Moreover, the People's case depended on the alleged nonconsensual nature of the sexual intercourse but, as noted, the SANE nurse testified that J.R.'s only visible injury, the tear to her genitalia, was consistent with consensual intercourse. In these circumstances, we conclude that there was a reasonable probability that the Rule 404(b) evidence substantially influenced the verdict. See Yusem, 210 P.3d at 469–70; People v. Novitskiy, 81 P.3d 1070, 1072 (Colo.App.2003) (where the guilty verdict “depended in large part” on Rule 404(b) evidence that the district court improperly admitted to rebut the defendant's defense, the error in admitting the evidence was not harmless). Therefore, we reverse the judgment of conviction and remand the case for a new trial.”
(4) The evidence has probative value that is not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice. Given the Court’s finding under the 3rd prong, the Court never got here.

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