In 2005, Mr. James Eric Verde was charged with the sexual abuse of a twelve-year-old child. During the trial, the prosecution was allowed to bring in evidence of previous allegations made by other two other males against Mr. Verde. Mr. Verde was convicted and appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals. In Utah, prior bad acts by a defendant are admissible so long as the prosecution can show that they are not using the evidence just to show that the defendant has a bad character and acted according to that bad character. The court of appeals found that because Mr. Verde had plead not guilty to the crime, the prosecution was allowed to bring up the prior allegations to help prove that Mr. Verde intended the sexual abuse. This is known as the “not guilty rule.”
The Utah Supreme Court Opinion
The Utah Supreme Court uniformly rejected the “not guilty rule.” The court said, “[a] not-guilty plea technically puts every element of a crime at issue” so under the “not guilty rule” prior bad acts would always be admissible to help prove some element of the crime. The court found that there needs to be more than just a not guilty plea to admit prior bad act evidence. Specifically, the court looked at what Mr. Verde’s claimed defenses were and found that he had not argued that he didn’t have the intent to commit sexual abuse–Mr. Verde had argued that he hadn’t committed the crime at all. Because of this error, the Utah Supreme Court ordered that Mr. Verde be given a new trial and the prosecution will have to try and give the trial court a different reason to admit the prior allegations of abuse.
The Doctrine of Chances
The supreme court also introduced a new way to look at prior bad acts by a defendant before admitting them at trial: the “doctrine of chances.” Under this doctrine, the more times similar events occur, the likelihood that these events are just coincidence becomes lower. So, to use the court’s example, the probability that an innocent person would be accused of sexual assault multiple times is fairly low. To help in analyzing whether prior bad acts should be admitted in a trial under the “doctrine of chances,” the supreme court told trial courts to look at: (1) what elements of the crime are disputed by the defense; (2) whether the prior acts are “roughly similar to the charged crime”; (3) whether the prior bad acts are independent of each other and the charged crime; and (4) how many times the independence acts are said to have occurred.
For the full opinion, click the link: Verde.
What this Means for Defendants
It remains to be seen how trial courts will interpret and use the doctrine of chances in future trials. Having a prior conviction or being previously accused of a criminal act can be very difficult evidence for a defendant to overcome at trial. Many defendants are not even aware that prior accusations, not just prior convictions, may be used against them in future trials. Having an experienced criminal defense attorney to make a strong argument to keep that evidence out can make a big difference!