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COA adopts 'compromise approach' of theory

January 20, 2009

The Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed a man's conviction of child molesting, ruling he failed to prove the trial court erred by excluding certain evidence regarding his victim. The appellate court also examined the "sexual innocence inference theory" and adopted the compromise view of some courts when balancing a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights with the policy behind the Rape Shield Rule.

Arthur Oatts challenged his conviction of child molesting against his granddaughter in Arthur Oatts v. State of Indiana, No. 49A02-0805-CV-447. Oatts claimed the trial court abused its discretion by excluding evidence his granddaughter had previously seen an allegedly pornographic video and previously had been molested; and the court erred by responding to jury questions during deliberations after the jury indicated it arrived at a decision.

The Indiana Court of Appeals determined based on caselaw and a previous Indiana Supreme Court holding that under Indiana Evidence Rule 412, the state's Rape Shield Rule, the trial court didn't err by not allowing evidence Oatts' granddaughter had seen a pornographic tape and had been previously molested.

In order to determine whether Oatts' constitutional rights were violated because the exclusion of the evidence didn't allow him to cross examine a witness. The state's high court has held Indiana's Rape Shield Statute doesn't violate the Sixth Amendment right to confrontation absent a showing of actual impingement on cross examination. Oatts believed the excluded evidence was relevant to show his granddaughter had knowledge of the nature of sex acts and the investigative process, a theory the Court of Appeals referred to as the sexual innocence inference theory.

Courts across the country are split in their approach to the theory, but the Indiana appellate court adopted the compromise view courts in Arizona and Wisconsin have followed. The compromise view might grant the accused a right to introduce evidence of the victim's sexual contact with a third party if the conduct in question was not only unusual but strikingly similar to the alleged misconduct with the accused, wrote Judge Elaine Brown. This view places the burden on Oatts to show the prior sexual act happened and it was sufficiently similar to the present act to give his granddaughter knowledge to imagine the molestation charge. But Oatts failed to prove that, so the appellate court can't say his constitutional rights were violated, wrote the judge.

The Indiana Court of Appeals also found the trial court didn't abuse its discretion by responding to jury questions. The appellate court can't say the trial court's answer to the jury's question emphasized any particular instruction or that Oatts was prejudiced by the answer.

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