In a divided opinion delivered today, the Massachusetts Appeals Court voted 2-1 to uphold the indecent assault and battery convictions returned against a man who repeatedly sexually assaulted a girl over the course of many years. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Childs.
The victim in this case had a hard life from a young age, living with an alcoholic father and mentally-ill mother. The defendant was a family friend and spent considerable time with the victim. Until just before her seventh birthday, the victim lived with her family in Hudson. When she was five or six years old, the defendant began sexually assaulting her by forcing her to touch his penis through his clothes. The victim’s family moved to Springfield when she was still six years old, and the defendant continued to visit her. The defendant’s sexual abuse of the victim escalated when she lived in Springfield, and he allegedly rubbed his penis against the victim’s face, touched her vagina, and orally raped her. When the victim was 14 years old, she moved with her family back to Hudson and the defendant once again sexually assaulted her by touching her breasts, her buttocks, and her vagina. The police finally became aware of the defendant’s conduct and interviewed him. The defendant claimed he might have touched the victim (and her sister) on occasion, but if so, it had been an accident. He denied ever intentionally touching the victim in a sexual manner and he introduced testimony from three separate social workers who all said the victim had either recanted allegations she previously made against the defendant or asserted she had never been sexually assaulted. A Middlesex County superior court jury found the defendant guilty of three counts of indecent assault and battery, and one count of indecent assault and battery on a child.
The defendant’s appellate argument focused on whether the trial judge had properly allowed the prosecutor to introduce evidence of two sexual assaults that allegedly happened while the victim was living in Springfield. Because Springfield is not in Middlesex County, the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office did not have jurisdiction to prosecute anything that happened in Springfield. The defendant argued evidence of the Springfield assaults were an attempt to establish he had a propensity to commit a crime (propensity evidence is prohibited). A majority of the Appeals Court concluded the evidence was properly admitted not to establish the defendant’s bad character, but rather to illustrate the entire relationship between the defendant and the victim. If the jury heard evidence that the defendant had sexually assaulted the victim when she was a young child and then not again for many years later, the victim’s story would not have made sense. It was proper, according to the Appeals Court, for some (only two) of the Springfield assaults to be introduced to the jury to establish his pattern of misconduct.
One justice dissented, arguing that the uncharged conduct (the alleged Springfield assaults) “overwhelmed” the charged conduct. When the prosecutor “blended” the charged conduct with the uncharged conduct, the defendant was likely deprived of a fair trial.
Oftentimes when an Appeals Court decision is not unanimous, the Supreme Judicial Court will decide to review it. Within the next few months, the SJC will determine whether the Appeals Court decision will stand or face further appellate review.