COA upholds conviction against uncle who molested nephew

The Indiana Court of Appeals has upheld a felony conviction against a Ripley County man convicted of molesting his 12-year-old nephew.

While spending Christmas with his father in 2015, twelve-year-old C.L. was inappropriately touched by Robert Lee Laird, his uncle, while the two sat next to each other on the couch playing a game on C.L.’s iPad. As they sat on the couch, Laird rubbed his pinky finger on C.L.’s penis over his clothing.

Later that evening, Laird invited C.L. to sleep in a twin bed with him. When C.L. agreed, Laird put his arms around the boy and slowly moved his hands down until he touched C.L.’s penis over his clothes. The boy repositioned himself to get away from Laird’s hand, but Laird took C.L.’s hand and placed it under his clothes and on his penis.  When C.L. left the room, he immediately told his sister and his father, who ordered Laird to leave.

Laird admitted to being attracted to “younger dudes” during investigation and responded positively when asked if he found “young teens sexually attractive.” After a computer search, police found searches for “naked twelve year old boy,” “nude twelve year old boy,” “young boy giving his first handjob,” “young boy giving a handjob,” and “boys first handjob fast cum,” in addition to other searches for naked young boys’ penises, father-son sex acts and sex acts between men and boys.

On January 28, 2016, the State charged Laird with one count of Level 4 felony child molesting. Prior to trial, the State filed a notice of intent to introduce evidence from Laird’s internet searches, his 2016 conviction for dissemination of matter harmful to minors, in which the victim was his underage niece, and an incident in 1999 in which a 9-year-old boy alleged that Laird touched the child’s genitals while in a hotel hot tub.

Laird asked the Ripley Circuit Court to exclude the state’s evidence, and the trial court ruled that only the evidence of the searches on December 22, 2015, which was only three days before the incident with C.L., would be admissible. The court ruled that evidence regarding the other internet searches and prior incidents would be inadmissible. 

A jury then found guilty as charged, so he appealed, arguing the trial court erred in admitting the evidence regarding the internet search history found on his computer.

“Here, Laird filed a pre-trial motion in limine to exclude reference to his internet search history; he also objected when the prosecutor referenced the internet search evidence in the State’s opening statement,” Judge Paul Mathias wrote in the Friday opinion. “However, Laird did not object at the time the evidence was introduced at trial. He therefore failed to preserve the issue for appeal.”

The Court of Appeals also noted the trial court did not permit the State to introduce other evidence found on Laird’s computer, but only permitted the State to introduce evidence of Laird’s internet search history that was both close in time and very similar to his actions against C.L.

“Given these facts and circumstances, the trial court did not err in admitting the evidence of Laird’s internet search history under the ‘plan’ exception to Evidence Rule 404(b),” Mathias concluded. “See Remy 17 N.E.3d at 401. This is true regardless of whether we view Laird’s claim under the abuse of discretion standard or the fundamental error standard.”

Further, addressing the intent exception, Mathias wrote that Laird placed his intent at issue by stating that if he did inappropriately touch his nephew, it was accidental. That statement made the evidence admissible under the intent exception, the judge said.

Judge Melissa May concurred in result, disagreeing with the majority’s holding that Laird waived the issue “because defense counsel did not properly object at trial to the admission of the contested evidence.”

“The majority holds Laird failed to preserve this matter for appeal because he did not object when the evidence was admitted,” May wrote in her separate opinion. “The majority holds that for the objection to preserve error for appeal, the trial court must have ruled ‘at trial . . . when the evidence was offered.’”

“While the best practice would still be to object contemporaneously with the admission of any disputed evidence, Evidence Rule 103 was amended to allow parties to rely on the existence of a continuing objection after a trial court has ruled definitively at trial,” May continued. “This rule does not limit the definition of ‘at trial’ to when the evidence is offered during witnesses’ testimony; as a result, because an opening argument occurs ‘at trial,’ Laird’s objection should be viewed as sufficient.”

The case is Robert Lee Laird v. State of Indiana 69A05-1707-CR-1709.

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