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Supreme Court reverses rape conviction

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The Indiana Supreme Court overturned a man's rape conviction because evidence of his 10-year-old conviction of attempted rape of another woman shouldn't have been admitted at trial.

Indiana Evidence Rule 404(b) prohibits the use of evidence of prior crimes "to prove the character of a person in order to show the action in conformity therewith" except in certain circumstances. The justices unanimously decided in Otho L. Lafayette v. State of Indiana, No. 45S03-0904-CR-812, that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of Otho Lafayette's prior attempted rape conviction and ordered a new trial.

Wickizer v. State, 626 N.E.2d 795 (Ind. 1993), determined the state was best served by a narrow construction of Evid. R. 404(b) and held that the intent exception is available when a defendant goes beyond merely denying the charges and alleges a particular contrary intent. The state then can offer evidence of prior crimes to prove intent at the time of the charged offense.

Lafayette never denied having sex with the woman, C.E., but claimed it was consensual.

Lafayette filed a pre-trial motion to prevent the admission of his prior conviction and the court took it under advisement. It then allowed the evidence after determining Lafayette placed his intent at issue when he attacked the credibility of his accuser on the issue of her consent and the court found it was relevant to determine whether he possessed the requisite intent to rape his victim.

Neither state appellate court has addressed the question of whether challenging the credibility of a prosecuting witness in a rape case on the issue of consent puts the defendant's intent at issue. But Indiana precedent dictates the use of the defense of consent in a rape prosecution isn't, standing alone, enough to trigger the availability of the intent exception, wrote Justice Frank Sullivan.

"When a defendant questions the credibility of the prosecuting witness, we believe that the defendant does no more than advance that consent defense," he wrote. "...If a defendant's intent were placed at issue by the questioning of the prosecuting witness's credibility, then the defendant is effectively precluded from exercising the right to confront a witness's credibility at all."

The Supreme Court also agreed with Indiana Court of Appeals Judge Terry Crone, who wrote the majority opinion for that court, that a defendant's assertions that an alleged rape victim consented to sex doesn't present a claim of particular contrary intent for purposes of triggering the intent exception to Evid. R. 404(b), wrote Justice Sullivan. The justices also agreed with Judge Crone that the prior attempted rape conviction wasn't admissible because it wasn't relevant to prove the victim consented to having sex with Lafayette.

The admission of this evidence wasn't a harmless error and requires Lafayette's conviction be reversed, the high court determined.

"Indeed, on review of the record, one is left with the unmistakable and forbidden impression that because the defendant was convicted of attempted rape in 1997, he must have raped C.E. in 2007," Justice Sullivan wrote.

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