OH Supreme Court Rules That Evidence of Prior Sexual Abuse By Defendant Is Admissible To Show “Grooming” of Victims

The Ohio Supreme Court has held that the Rules of Evidence precludes the admission of evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts offered to prove the character of an accused in order to show that the accused acted in conformity therewith, but does not preclude admission of that evidence for other purposes.

The case is State v. Williams, Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-5695.

The Defendant was convicted of rape, gross sexual imposition, kidnapping, and unlawful sexual conduct with a minor.  The Defendant had met a juvenile at an East Cleveland church and “became a mentor to him.”  In 2008, when the victim was 14, the defendant began to sexually abuse him.

The state sought to admit evidence that the Defendant had had a similar relationship with a different teenage boy.  The state argued that this “indicated a course of conduct constituting a common plan, demonstrated a distinct pattern of sexual conduct constituting a modus operandi, and, by reasonable inference, tended to prove [the defendant’s] intent to achieve sexual gratification with teenage males.”   The trial judge admitted this evidence, but cautioned the jury that the evidence would be “for a limited purpose.”

Under Ohio law – both the Rules of Evidence and the Revised Code — evidence that an accused committed a crime other than the one for which he is on trial is not admissible when its sole purpose is to show the accused’s propensity or inclination to commit crime or that he acted in conformity with bad character.  However, the statute permits the admission of evidence where motive or intent, absence of mistake or accident, or scheme, plan, or system in doing an act is material.  The Rule more generally provides discretion to the trial judge to admit evidence for these purposes.

The Supreme Court instructed trial courts to use a three step process.

First, the court should consider whether the other acts evidence is relevant to making any fact that is of consequence to the determination of the action more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.

Second, the court should consider whether evidence of the other crimes, wrongs, or acts is presented to prove the character of the accused in order to show activity in conformity therewith or whether the other acts evidence is presented for a legitimate purpose.

Third, the court should consider whether the probative value of the other acts evidence is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.

In this case, the evidence was relevant because it tended to show the motive the defendant had and the preparation and plan he exhibited of targeting, mentoring, grooming, and abusing teenage boys.  The court was satisfied that the evidence was not admitted to show that abusing children was in the defendant’s character, based in part on the limiting instruction given by the judge.  The court also believed that the evidence was not unduly prejudicial, also mostly because the trial court instructed the jury that this evidence could not be considered to show that the defendant had acted in conformity with a character trait.

Evidence Rule 404(B) provides that evidence of other crimes, wrongs, or acts of an accused may be admissible to prove intent or plan, even if the identity of an accused or the immediate background of a crime is not at issue.  The court held that evidence that the defendant had engaged in sexual relations with a teenage boy on previous occasions may be admissible to prove that the defendant “had a plan to target vulnerable teenage boys, to mentor them, and to groom them for sexual activity with the intent of sexual gratification.”  The court explained that the Rule “affords the trial court discretion to admit other acts evidence for any other purpose.”

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