Massachusetts Appeals Court Permits Evidence of Defendant’s Search for Internet Pornography in Child Rape Case

The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled today that a superior court judge properly allowed the Commonwealth to introduce evidence of the defendant’s Internet search history, which included searches for pornography involving young girls, during the defendant’s child rape trial.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Vera

The defendant was sentenced to serve 15-20 years in state prison following his convictions for various sex crimes, including rape of a child, indecent assault and battery on a child, open and gross lewdness, and dissemination of matter harmful to a minor.  The charges resulted from the defendant’s sexual abuse of his girlfriend’s daughter from the time the daughter was four years old until she was eight.  The Commonwealth proved that the defendant raped the victim on several occasions, got into a bathtub with her and exposed himself, and showed pornographic movies to her.  The defendant sometimes mimicked the movies’ sex scenes with the victim, which resulted in him raping and indecently assaulting her.

The defendant agreed to be interrogated by a Worcester police detective.  The defendant denied ever sexually assaulting the victim and said he accidentally exposed himself while he was in the bathtub with her.  The defendant initially denied watching pornography but then said he would watch it only at his friends’ houses.

During the investigation, the police seized the defendant’s computer and had it examined by a digital forensic specialist.  The specialist located a number of Internet searches for pornography that specifically targeted teenagers and young girls.  Over the defendant’s objection, the Commonwealth was permitted to introduce evidence of the defendant’s Internet searches to the jury.  Following his convictions, the defendant appealed and argued that the testimony regarding his Internet search history constituted improper character evidence that was extremely prejudicial and should have been excluded.  The Appeals Court rejected the defendant’s argument and affirmed his convictions.

The Commonwealth is not allowed to introduce evidence of a defendant’s prior misconduct to establish that he has a propensity to commit a crime.  However, the prior misconduct is sometimes admissible to establish the defendant’s pattern of behavior, absence of mistake, or common scheme.  The Appeals Court concluded that the defendant’s search for pornography involving young girls was relevant to rebut the defendant’s assertion that he had mistakenly or accidentally exposed himself to the victim in the bathtub.  The evidence was also admissible to impeach the defendant’s statement to the police that he did not watch pornography at his home and did not have any intent to harm the victim.  Because evidence related to the defendant’s Internet searches was probative of his state of mind and motive, it was relevant.

The defendant also argued that even if the evidence was relevant, it should have been excluded because its probative value was outweighed by its prejudicial effect.  The Appeals Court agreed that the evidence was prejudicial, but held that it was properly admitted because it was highly probative of the defendant’s intent.  The Court also said the evidence established the defendant’s voyeuristic interest in sexual matters and young females.

This case is another example of why it is never a good idea for a criminal suspect to speak to the police without having an attorney present.  By denying that he viewed pornography at home, the defendant almost guaranteed that the evidence regarding his Internet searches would be admitted at the trial, which was devastating to his case.  If he had kept his mouth shut, it would have been more difficult for the Commonwealth to convince the judge that the evidence was relevant.

Pretrial motions that address the admissibility of evidence often determine the outcome of cases.  If the defendant’s pornography preferences were not shared with the jury, he would have had a much better chance of being acquitted of the charges.