Court Reverses after Evidence of Prior Child Molestation Charges Admitted

State v. Franks (2014)

The Montana Supreme Court has overturned a conviction for sexual assault of a child because the trial court improperly admitted evidence that the defendant was previously charged with child molestation.

The State prosecuted Franks for sexual assault of a child after his former roommate’s daughter said he had assaulted her four years earlier. The girl said she was prompted to report this by reading in a newspaper that Franks had been accused of molesting a five-year-old boy.

Franks was later acquitted of molesting the boy.

At the trial for assaulting the girl, the State offered her testimony about the newspaper article to explain why she reported when she did. In a pretrial hearing, the trial court admitted the testimony for this purpose only, and stated that Franks could offer evidence of his acquittal to negate any prejudice.

During trial, the prosecutor mentioned the prior child molestation charges several times—during opening and closing statements and during Franks’s cross-examination, where the prosecutor asked Franks whether he heard his attorney state during jury selection that “not guilty doesn’t mean innocent.” The trial court convicted Franks, and he moved for a new trial and acquittal on the basis that the admission of the newspaper article testimony was unfairly prejudicial.

Under Rule of Evidence 404(b), evidence of other crimes or wrongs may not be admitted to prove a person acted in conformity with past wrongs. This rule is intended to prevent juries’ making “the inference from bad act to bad person to guilty person.” However, evidence of other crimes or wrongs may be admitted for another purpose. Rule of Evidence 403, which must be considered in conjunction with 404(b), excludes evidence where its probative value is substantially outweighed by danger of unfair prejudice.

Rules 403 and 404(b) have also been adopted in Washington state, and Washington courts also seek to prevent juries from convicting on the basis of bad character, rather than proof of the charged crime.

The Montana Supreme Court held that the testimony about the newspaper article was admissible under 404(b) to prove why the girl reported when she did. However, the appellate court also found that the prosecutor did not adhere to the trial judge’s limiting instruction, as he referred to the newspaper article several times outside the context of the timing of the girl’s accusations. The court found that these references unfairly prejudiced Franks.

The court noted that the “wiser course” for the trial court would have been to visit the issue of admissibility when and if the issue of the complainant’s credibility—because she waited to bring her accusations—was raised. The court held that the danger of unfair prejudice here was outweighed by the evidence’s probative value, so the testimony should have been excluded under Rule of Evidence 403. The appellate court reversed and remanded for a new trial.