Com. v. Foster F. (2014)
by David S. Marshall
A Massachusetts appellate court has reversed the sexual assault conviction of a juvenile after the entirety of an interview transcript was admitted in evidence at trial.
In Commonwealth v. Foster F., a juvenile was charged with sexual assault. The accuser testified that she was interviewed by the Sexual Abuse Intervention Network after the alleged assault. The prosecutor then moved to have the entire transcript of the girl’s interview admitted into evidence. The trial judge admitted the transcript without making any redactions. The juvenile was later adjudicated delinquent—the juvenile court version of being convicted.
On appeal, the juvenile argued that the trial judge erroneously admitted the entire interview transcript. The State argued that the entire transcript was properly admitted under the verbal completeness doctrine. The verbal completeness doctrine allows admission of other relevant portions of a document when part of the document has already been admitted. The purpose of the doctrine is to clarify and give context to statements already admitted.
In Washington state courts, this doctrine is expressed in Washington Rule of Evidence 106. It allows a court to admit in evidence parts of a recorded statement that “ought in fairness to be considered contemporaneously with” the parts already admitted.
During the interview, the girl stated that she told several friends about the alleged assault. According to the girl, two different friends each said that the juvenile was a “perv” and one friend said that “alls [sic] he does is talk about sex and porn and stuff like that.”
The appellate court held that the trial judge erred in admitted the entire interview transcript. The court limited the Massachusetts verbal completeness doctrine to admitting other portions of a document that are on the same subject, part of the same conversation, and necessary to understanding the admitted statement.
Here, the only portions relevant to an admitted statement were facts about the alleged assault.
The appellate court also found that the interview contained character evidence: the juvenile’s being called a “perv.” Character evidence is generally inadmissible, both in Washington state and in Massachusetts. The court stated that “such comments, in the context of a sexual assault trial where the central issue is credibility, were devastating.” The court also reasoned that the transcript was littered with prior consistent statements which were inadmissible in this context.
The court therefore reversed the adjudication of delinquency.