The Massachusetts Appeals Court today reversed a Lynn man’s conviction for raping his stepdaughter, holding that the trial judge improperly allowed testimony regarding the defendant’s alleged confession to his wife. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Garcia.
In April of 2010, the defendant’s adult stepdaughter had a fight with her boyfriend and decided to stay at the defendant’s house for the night. The defendant’s wife (the mother of the alleged victim) was on vacation in Florida. When the stepdaughter arrived at the defendant’s home at 11 p.m., she found the defendant watching television in his bedroom. After a brief conversation, the stepdaughter went to bed in a spare bedroom. She woke up a few hours later and allegedly found the defendant, naked, lying in her bed. She told the police her pants and underwear had been pulled down and the defendant’s fingers were inside of her vagina. The defendant supposedly apologized to the stepdaughter and left her room. The stepdaughter filed a report with the police and the defendant was arrested and charged with rape.
The defendant denied the allegation and argued the stepdaughter fabricated the charges because he had previously kicked her out of the house. At trial, the defendant’s attorney sought to introduce evidence that the stepdaughter had told her mother she was pregnant by the defendant (which was impossible given the facts of the case) in order to establish the stepdaughter’s willingness to fabricate. In response, the prosecutor asked the judge to allow her to introduce evidence that the defendant’s wife told the stepdaughter that the defendant had apologized to her for the incident and explained he was tired and had mistaken the stepdaughter for the wife. The judge ultimately allowed the admission of the contents of the conversation that had allegedly occurred between the defendant’s wife and stepdaughter. The stepdaughter told the jury her mother said the defendant had admitted to the crime and apologized. The defendant’s wife denied he ever made such a statement. The defendant was convicted and sentenced to serve 5-7 years in state prison.
The defendant argued on appeal that any statement he allegedly made to his wife should not have been admitted at trial, as it constituted a privileged marital communication. Massachusetts law provides that an individual cannot be compelled to testify against his or her spouse at a criminal trial. The Appeals Court ruled the trial judge incorrectly defined the marital privilege to the defendant’s wife, telling her she could refuse to testify about her conversations with the defendant. However, the marital privilege allowed the defendant’s wife to refuse to testify at all, not just regarding statements the defendant may have made. Further, the marital privilege statute prohibits a third party (in this case, the stepdaughter) from testifying about a private conversation between spouses (the Commonwealth asserted on appeal that such a third-party disclosure was permitted). Therefore, the trial judge committed error by allowing the stepdaughter to testify the defendant allegedly apologized to his wife for the rape. The Appeals Court concluded the defendant was prejudiced by the trial judge’s error, as the case was a credibility contest between the defendant and his stepdaughter. The suggestion that the defendant had admitted to the crime was devastating to his case.
The Commonwealth has the option of retrying the case. Even if it chooses not to do so, the defendant has served nearly four years of his sentence, as he was immediately imprisoned following the jury’s verdict.