Grimm v. State of Maryland (2016)
by David S. Marshall
In a recent Maryland Court of Appeals case, a woman’s conviction for sexually abusing her minor stepson was reversed because the stepson’s testimony did not adequately corroborate that the abuse had in fact occurred. Because the State did not produce independent evidence to support the defendant’s confession, the confession alone was legally insufficient to warrant a conviction.
Maryland requires that the prosecution substantiate a defendant’s extrajudicial confession (a confession made out of court) with independent evidence that the crime has occurred. A confession alone is not sufficient to convict, and an uncorroborated confession does not establish the commission of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The rule of “corroboration” exists as a safeguard against convictions based solely on untrue confessions.
In this case, the police questioned the defendant after reviewing an anonymous letter originating from her stepson’s school, alleging a sexual relationship between herself and her stepson. When detectives showed the stepmother the letter, she immediate confessed that she had had had a sexual relationship with her stepson, which began when he was sixteen years old and ended shortly before the interview. She also told police that she suspected her stepson might be the father of her two youngest children.
At trial, the State offered into evidence the testimony of police detectives and the stepson as witnesses, in addition to the stepmother’s recorded confession. The State had obtained a court order compelling the stepson to testify against his stepmother. However, the stepson was incredibly unhelpful on the stand. He answered a few preliminary questions, but when asked whether he had ever had a sexual relationship with his stepmother, he insisted that he did not recall the details or events.
The court ruled in this case that that the stepson’s testimony that he did not remember whether he had a sexual relationship with his stepmother did not constitute sufficient corroboration of her confession. The court also ruled that the stepmother’s uncorroborated confession did not constitute sufficient evidence to support a conviction for sexual abuse of a minor, because her confession was unsubstantiated by any independent evidence proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime had actually occurred.
Just as in Maryland, a conviction in Washington State may not be based on a confession alone. This rule is designed to prevent punishment for non-existent crimes. The State may not simply rely on a defendant’s confession, but instead must independently prove every element of an alleged crime in order to convict that defendant (State v. Dow 2010).
For example, Washington’s first degree child molestation law requires that the defendant (1) has sexual contact, (2) with a child under twelve years old, and (3) the perpetrator is at least thirty-six months older than the victim. RCW 9A.44.083(1). Even if a defendant in Washington confesses to elements 1, 2, and 3 of this crime, the State would still have to prove with independent evidence that the defendant had sexual contact with a child under twelve, and that the defendant was at least three years older than that victim.