Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds Sex Offense Conviction Despite Admission of Improper Evidence at Trial

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed a defendant’s conviction for sexually assaulting a nine-year-old girl, despite acknowledging the trial judge had improperly admitted evidence that the defendant had viewed adult pornography.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Hampton

The victim lived at home with various family members, including her parents, her sisters, and the defendant, who was her great uncle.  The defendant slept in the victim’s bedroom, and the victim slept on a couch or in her parents’ room.  However, the victim regularly went into the defendant’s room to retrieve toys, play games, or watch movies on the defendant’s computer.  In October of 2015, the victim went into the defendant’s room when he allegedly grabbed her by the wrist and forced her to touch his penis with her hand.  There was uncertainty about whether the touching occurred above or underneath the defendant’s clothes.  A few days later, the defendant allegedly touched the victim’s vagina underneath her clothes, causing her to bleed.  The defendant supposedly instructed the victim not to tell anyone what he had done, but the victim disclosed the assault to her sister on some later date.  Eventually, the victim’s counselor learned about the purported sexual assaults and notified the victim’s parents who then called the police.  The defendant was arrested a few weeks later and denied having assaulted the victim.  However, he did admit to having watched a pornographic movie on his computer that did not involve children.  The defendant was charged with multiple counts of indecent assault and battery on a child under the age of 14.  Following his conviction on one of the counts, the defendant appealed.

The issue on appeal was whether the trial judge should have permitted the prosecutor to admit evidence that the defendant admitted to having watched adult pornography on his computer.  The defendant had argued such evidence was irrelevant.  Relevant evidence is evidence which has a rational tendency to prove an issue in a case.  It was improper for the prosecutor to introduce evidence that the defendant watched pornography unless there was a connection between the pornography and the alleged sexual assault of the minor victim.  In this case, the Appeals Court ruled the testimony concerning the pornography was not relevant to establish the defendant had sexually assaulted a young girl.  Therefore, the trial judge made an error of law in allowing a police officer to testify that the defendant had admitted to having watched adult pornography.  However, the Appeals Court’s determination that the trial judge made a mistake of law was not the end of the inquiry.  In order for the defendant to be awarded a new trial, he needed to have proven that the trial judge’s error had prejudiced his case.  The Appeals Court ruled the testimony regarding the defendant’s viewing of pornography did not have an impact on the jury’s verdict.  The Court pointed out that the judge did not allow the prosecutor to discuss the evidence during the closing argument and, importantly, the defendant was found not guilty of one of the indecent assault and battery charges.  Because the defendant beat one of the charges, said the Appeals Court, it appeared clear the jury was not prejudiced by the improperly-admitted testimony.  Accordingly, the defendant’s conviction will stand and he will be required to register as a sex offender.

These types of cases usually involve complex evidentiary issues that should be considered by an experienced criminal defense attorney.  If you are charged with a sex crime in Massachusetts, talk to a lawyer as soon as possible.