State of North Carolina v. Watts (2016)
by David S. Marshall
A North Carolina Court of Appeals has granted Calvin Watts a new trial. Mr. Watts was convicted of attempted first-degree rape and three counts of first-degree sexual offense with a child. His convictions were overturned, however, because the trial court improperly admitted testimony from a woman he had allegedly assaulted eight years earlier.
The law prohibits using evidence of other crimes or acts to demonstrate that a criminal defendant has bad character and so probably committed the crimes for which he or she is on trial. However, the prosecution may enter evidence of past conduct for other purposes—for example, to prove “motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, [and] knowledge. . . .” (Rule 404(b)).
Mr. Watts’s trial was for the 2011 rape and sexual assault of an eleven-year-old girl, a cousin of his grandchildren. At trial, the court allowed the State to introduce evidence of separate 2003 rape and breaking and entering charges in order to show similar opportunity, plan, and intent to the 2011 case. The State argued the alleged incidents of 2003 and 2011 were alike: the defendant finds a young girl alone, rapes her, then threatens to kill her and her family if she tells anyone.
On appeal, Mr. Watts argued that, contrary to the trial court’s ruling, the alleged events of 2003 (for which he was never tried) were not sufficiently similar and/or were too far removed from the alleged incident in the 2011 case to be admissible. Instead, the 2003 complainant’s testimony was merely prejudicial to Mr. Watts’s character.
The Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Watts and held that the trial court’s broad labelling of the similarities disguised significant differences in the sexual assaults. First, the two complainants were far apart in age (eleven and seventeen). Second, the eleven-year-old girl was in Mr. Watts’s care when he allegedly raped her, while the 2003 complainant was raped by an individual who broke into her trailer while she was alone. Third, Mr. Watts had a much closer relationship with the eleven-year-old than he did with the 2003 victim. Finally, the 2003 victim’s assailant held a knife to her throat during the assault, but the eleven-year-old girl did not testify that the defendant had held a knife on her.
The Court of Appeals found that the prior sexual assault allegations were insufficiently similar to the 2011 charges to be relevant to prove a common opportunity, plan, or intent. Because the trial court’s improper admission of this evidence was prejudicial to Mr. Watts, he was entitled to a new trial.
In Washington State, Evidence Rule 404(b) is identical to North Carolina’s rule. Defendants in Washington are protected from the admission of past acts to prove they have bad character and so are likely to commit crime. Past actions can only be admitted if they are relevant to the case at trial in some other way.