Court Reverses Sexual Assault Conviction Due To Admission of Overwhelming Propensity Evidence

State v. Willis (2016)

by David S. Marshall

The Supreme Court of New Jersey has reversed a conviction for sexual assault in the second degree after determining that a prior assault allegation was not admissible to prove the defendant’s intent to commit assault in the present case.

Willis was convicted of second-degree sexual assault after having sex with K.M., a 22-year-old alleged prostitute. K.M. denied that she had consented to sexual relations with him. Whether she had was the key question in the case.

At trial, the State called N.J. to testify about an incident in 2003 where, she said, Willis sexually assaulted her. N.J. had reported the incident to police, but the State had not charged Willis with any crime. Two police officers who had investigated N.J.’s complaint also testified.

The trial court allowed the testimony of N.J. and the police officers in order to show that Willis had intended to assault K.M. The court instructed the jury that it could not use the testimony to show that Willis had a tendency to commit crimes.

Willis appealed his conviction to the court of appeals, which affirmed. He then petitioned for review by the state supreme court.

A common rule of evidence in most states, including Washington, is that evidence of other crimes is admissible when relevant to an issue in the case. But in Washington, New Jersey, and many other states, other-crimes evidence is not admissible solely to show a defendant’s criminal “propensity”—to show that he is a bad man and is therefore more likely to have committed the charged crime.

In Willis’s case, the N.J. evidence must have been relevant to a contested issue in the case and must also have been more probative that prejudicial. The supreme court concluded that there was no logical relationship between N.J.’s testimony and the alleged assault of K.M., so the N.J evidence was not relevant to a contested issue.

The court also held that admitting so much evidence regarding Willis’s alleged assault on N.J. was unduly prejudicial. K.M.’s trial essentially became a vehicle for a mini-trial of whether Willis sexually assaulted N.J. Such a mini-trial was prejudicial because it likely distracted the jury from the case at hand and overwhelmed the jury’s ability to limit its use of the evidence to intent.

Thus, the court concluded, the N.J. evidence only served to show Willis’s propensity to sexually assault young women. Admitting the evidence required reversing his convictions.