Wrongly admitted evidence of man’s 10-year-old crime requires new trial

The Indiana Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a man convicted of sexual battery after finding a trial court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of the man’s decade-old false informing conviction.

In 2017, Delta Chapman and Lamarco Toussaint returned to Toussaint’s apartment that he shared with his aunt after having dinner together. Toussaint, who had been keeping his relationship with Chapman a secret, locked his bedroom door when leaving for work the next morning. Chapman was still inside, but eventually left the room to use the bathroom.

Meanwhile, 16-year-old J.H. was visiting his grandmother — Toussaint’s aunt — and went into Toussaint’s room while Chapman was away. When Chapman returned, he forced himself on J.H. and performed oral sex on him. Afterward, Chapman gave J.H. ten dollars and told him not to tell anyone what had happened.

When Toussaint returned to the apartment later that evening after taking Chapman home, J.H., who was “[r]eally emotional, crying[,]” informed Toussaint what Chapman had done to him earlier that day, which Chapman denied having done. Chapman was later charged with Level 3 felony rape and Level 6 felony sexual battery.

Prior to the commencement of jury selection, the Allen Superior Court was informed that Chapman had been convicted of false informing in 2008. The State argued that Chapman’s unsupervised probation qualified as “confinement” pursuant to Indiana Evidence Rule 609. Thus, it argued that Chapman’s conviction was within the 10-year period mandating admission under the general rule of Evidence Rule 609 because he was released from probation in September 2009.

During a two-day trial, the state asked Chapman whether he had been convicted in the past of an offense involving dishonesty or false statement. The trial court overruled Chapman’s subsequent objection in which he renewed his arguments against admissibility under Evidence Rule 609. After Chapman affirmed he had been convicted of false informing in 2008, the state argued during closing that his testimony was not credible because he had been convicted of a lie in the past.

A jury ultimately found Chapman guilty of sexual battery and sentenced him to 2½ years in the Department of Correction. He since has been released, according to DOC records.

The Indiana Court of Appeals reversed Chapman’s conviction and remanded with instructions for a new trial after finding the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted evidence of Chapman’s prior conviction in violation of Indiana Evidence Rule 609(b).

“Specifically, the State asserts that the term ‘confinement’ in Evidence Rule 609(b) ‘goes beyond mere incarceration’ and ‘encompasses a probationary period as well as community correction placement, commitment to a local jail, and incarceration in the [DOC].’ We disagree with the State and conclude that Chapman’s probation did not qualify as ‘confinement’ for purposes of the ten-year time period in Evidence Rule 609(b),’” Judge Rudolph Pyle III wrote for the majority.

It also concluded that the beginning point for the 10-year period of Evidence Rule 609 was at Chapman’s 2008 conviction, therefore making it more than a decade old and presumptively inadmissible.

“We cannot say that the erroneous admission of Chapman’s prior conviction was harmless. Here, the evidence presented at trial was entirely testimonial. As such, witness credibility was central to each side’s position. Both J.H. and Chapman provided conflicting testimony regarding the events of December 24, 2017. Moreover, during closing arguments, the State argued that Chapman was not credible because he had a prior conviction for false informing. Because this case turned largely on the credibility of J.H. and Chapman, and the State relied on the prior conviction during closing argument, we conclude that the evidence of Chapman’s prior conviction had a prejudicial impact on the factfinder and contributed to the judgment,” the majority wrote.

Judge Terry Crone, concurring in result with a separate opinion, agreed with the majority that the trial court committed reversible error in admitting evidence of Chapman’s prior conviction. However, he partially parted ways with the majority’s analysis in Delta L. Chapman v. State of Indiana,19A-CR-1636.

“The majority states, ‘Here, the trial court did not engage in such a balancing test and the State failed to provide reasonable written notice. It was error to admit Chapman’s prior conviction under these circumstances.’

“The trial court did not engage in a balancing test because it erroneously concluded that the rule’s ten-year deadline had not elapsed, and Chapman did not object on the basis that the State had failed to provide reasonable written notice. Subject to this minor difference, I agree that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of Chapman’s prior conviction and that this error was reversible “[b]ecause this case turned largely on the credibility of J.H. and Chapman, and the State relied on the prior conviction during closing argument[.],’” Crone concluded.

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