The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld four rape convictions against a Haverhill man who repeatedly sexually assaulted his live-in girlfriend. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Lewis.
The defendant met the victim at a club in Lawrence and began what the victim characterized as a “whirl wind romance.” The romance didn’t last long. The victim testified the defendant was a heavy drinker and very controlling (for example, he wanted her to be subservient in public by calling him “sir” and staying quiet in front of his friends). On New Year’s Eve in 2012, the defendant got drunk and disappeared. The victim later found him at his sister’s house and an argument ensued. During the course of the argument, the defendant grabbed the victim, yanked her underwear and pantyhose down, threw her onto the floor, and raped her. The following day, the victim broke up with the defendant but did not report the rape. The breakup didn’t last long, as the defendant and the victim got back together the following month. The victim testified that the defendant was “sweet again” and was trying to make the relationship work. However, during another argument in July of 2013, the drunken defendant pinned the victim to the bed and began repeatedly hitting her. After pinning the victim down, the defendant raped her. Once again, the victim did not report the rape. She testified she still loved the defendant and wanted to work it out with him. A few days later, the defendant again came home drunk and began arguing with the victim. He raped her twice more but the victim didn’t immediately report it to the police because she “didn’t look at it as rape” at that point.
The day of the final rapes, the defendant called the police in an effort to get the victim arrested. The call backfired, as the responding officers arrested the defendant for assaulting the victim. The victim went to Haverhill District Court to apply for a restraining order and spoke to a victim witness advocate who worked for the Essex District Attorney’s Office. The advocate gave her a questionnaire that asked if she had ever been forced to have sex with the defendant against her will. It was at that point that the victim realized she had been raped. The victim met shortly thereafter with a Haverhill detective and shared with him the details of the most recent rapes. A jury convicted the defendant of four counts of rape and he was sentenced to 4-6 years in state prison.
The issue on appeal was the application of the first-complaint rule. In sexual assault cases, the prosecution is permitted to call a witness to testify who was the first person to whom the victim disclosed the assault. In this case, the affidavit that was submitted along with the restraining order application acted as the first-complaint witness (although there was no live witness) because it was the victim’s first telling of the alleged sexual assaults. However, the Commonwealth was also allowed to call the Haverhill detective to testify about his conversation with the victim during which she disclosed some of the sexual assault allegations. The Appeals Court ruled the detective’s testimony was appropriate. The Court noted that the Supreme Judicial Court has said trial judges need “flexibility” in determining who qualifies as a first-complaint witness and, in some cases, more than one person is permitted to testify as the “first” complaint witness.
The bottom line is that the “first-complaint” doctrine is a misnomer. Often times, prosecutors attempt to call multiple witnesses to testify about what the victim reported regarding the assault, and often times trial judges allow it to happen. If you are charged with a sex crime, it’s important you consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney to explore your options.