Rape Conviction Reversed Due to Improper Evidence of Prior Domestic Violence

State of Washington v. Paschal (2016)

by David S. Marshall

The Washington State Court of Appeals has reversed a Clark County man’s rape conviction and granted him a new trial because the trial court improperly admitted evidence of uncharged domestic violence acts by him. The court found that this evidence tempted the jury to convict because the defendant seemed the sort of person capable of raping his partner—even if evidence he committed the rape was not persuasive.

Under Washington Rule of Evidence 404(b), evidence of other crimes may not be admitted in evidence “to prove the character of a person” and thus to show him prone to commit the crime at issue. Evidence of other crimes may be admissible in court for other purposes, such as proof of motive, opportunity, plan, or knowledge. In this way the law protects defendants with criminal history from being convicted of new charges on scant evidence.

At trial, Mr. Paschal’s long-time romantic partner testified that he had forced her to perform oral sex on him after an argument between the two in their family home. Mr. Paschal countered that he had only struck his partner in self-defense during their argument. The trial court allowed evidence of two prior uncharged domestic violence incidents between Mr. Paschal and his partner. The State argued this evidence was proper under Rule 404(b) because it established the credibility of the partner’s testimony and rebutted Mr. Paschal’s claim of self-defense.

In its written instructions to the jury, the trial court gave the jury the following guidelines for their deliberations: “Testimony and/or photographs pertaining to a previous incident in 2010 between the defendant and [his partner] and may be considered by you only for the purpose of assessing [her] credibility and/or assessing her actions on March 17, 2013. You may not consider it for any other purpose.” The jury returned with a conviction for first degree rape.

On appeal, the State conceded that the trial court should not have allowed the jury to consider the 2010 domestic violence incidents when determining the partner’s credibility as a witness. The appellate court agreed that acts of domestic violence are not admissible to assess a victim’s credibility when the complainant does not contradict her story or recant.  Mr. Paschal’s partner did not contradict her story or recant, so the trial court was mistaken in admitting evidence of prior domestic violence assaults for the purpose of assessing her credibility.

The State went on to argue that the trial court’s error was harmless because Mr. Paschal would have been found guilty of first degree rape even if the court had not admitted the evidence in question. The appellate court disagreed, finding that all of the evidence of rape was influenced by the partner’s credibility because the only evidence of the rape came through her testimony. Without the evidence of earlier domestic violence and the court’s telling the jury it bore on the partner’s credibility, there was a reasonable probability that the jury’s verdict on the rape charge would have been different.