Despite inadmissible testimony, molestation conviction affirmed

A trial court erred in allowing evidence of a defendant’s alleged prior bad acts at his child molestation jury trial, but based on other corroborating evidence, the admission was harmless, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

The appellate panel affirmed a Class B felony conviction and 15-year sentence in Thomas E. Stettler v. State of Indiana, 18A04-1607-CR-1638.

Thomas Stettler, then 18 years old, was accused of molesting a 12-year-old victim in 2012. A jury convicted him after hearing testimony from the victim that included her recounting allegations of Stettler’s prior molestations. The state argued the evidence was admissible under the “plan” elements of Trial Rule 404(b), but Stettler argued the testimony was highly inflammatory and impermissible under the rule.

The panel found this testimony inadmissible, but didn’t reverse Stettler’s conviction because it ruled his substantial rights were not affected. The victim’s “testimony concerning Stettler’s treatment of her, including buying her presents and giving her money for skating and other activities, was corroborated in Stettler’s recorded interview with police,” who testified this behavior was characteristic of “grooming” a victim.

“And when asked in his interview with police what he would say to (the victim), Stettler responded that he would say, ‘I’m sorry,’” Judge L. Mark Bailey wrote for the panel. “In light of the foregoing, we conclude that any error in the trial court’s admission of impermissible evidence concerning prior bad acts was harmless.”

The panel also rejected Stettler’s arguments of prosecutorial misconduct during closing arguments.

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