Dismissal of Child Rape Charges Affirmed Based on State’s Mishandling Sexual Assault Exam Reports

State of Washington v. Easterling (2017)

by David S. Marshall

The Washington State Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of charges against Kitsap County man Ricko Easterling. The trial court granted Mr. Easterling’s Motion to Dismiss for Government Misconduct based on the prosecutor’s late disclosure of two children’s sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) exams.

The appellate court found that the lower court properly granted Mr. Easterling’s motion to dismiss charges related to one of the two girls he was accused of assaulting.

SANE Reports Denied, Then Disclosed

Mr. Easterling was charged with five counts of first degree child rape and two counts of communication with a minor for immoral purposes. He was arrested after two girls, sisters aged nine and ten, reported to their therapist that Mr. Easterling had assaulted them.

Shortly after Mr. Easterling’s trial began on these charges, his defense attorney learned from the girls’ mother that SANE exams had been performed on both her daughters after they reported the alleged assault. The prosecutor initially claimed he did not have a SANE exam report for either of the girls, and that to his knowledge, SANE exams had never been done. However, later the same day, the prosecutor confirmed SANE exams had been performed and provided copies of the reports to Mr. Easterling’s attorney. In response, Mr. Easterling filed a motion to dismiss the charges against him based on government mismanagement of the SANE reports.

Hearing on Mr. Easterling’s Motion to Dismiss

At the hearing, the lead detective on the case testified that he had mistakenly informed the prosecutor that a SANE exam had not been done because he mixed up the current case with another case he was working on. The SANE nurse who conducted the exams on the girls also testified. She reported that the younger girl agreed to a genital exam and was “pleasant and talkative” throughout the process. The nurse also testified that, based on the exams, she was not able to make any findings or conclusions regarding whether either girl had been sexually assaulted. 

As a result, the trial court granted Mr. Easterling’s motion to dismiss all the charges. It found that despite Mr. Easterling’s many requests for copies of the SANE exam reports, the State “consistently represented that no SANE exam occurred and there were no reports of any SANE exam.” The SANE exams were exculpatory because the younger girl’s exam report was normal. Therefore, it was reasonable to conclude from the normal report that Mr. Easterling had not penetrated her.

Government Mismanagement of Crucial Exculpatory Evidence in SANE Report

The State has a duty to disclose important evidence favorable to the defendant, the court of appeals observed, as well as a duty to learn of any favorable evidence “known to the others acting on the government’s behalf in the case, including the police.”  If mismanagement of this evidence occurs, even by the government’s simple mistake rather than deliberate secrecy, a court may properly dismiss the related charges.

Here, Mr. Easterling inquired about the SANE exams on multiple occasions, but the State made no attempt to find out whether anyone had performed SANE exams on the girls. Yet when defense counsel notified the prosecutor that SANE exams had been performed on both girls, the prosecutor was able to obtain copies of the SANE reports later the very same day. The court of appeals found that the trial court correctly determined that, while the State’s actions were not dishonest, the State’s failure even to contact the SANE department before trial was governmental mismanagement.

But mismanagement alone does not justify dismissing the charges. Another requirement is that the evidence the State failed to produce be crucial to the case, because it either proves the defendant’s innocence or directly contradicts evidence against the defendant. Here, the trial court found that the younger sister’s SANE exam strongly pointed to Mr. Easterling’s innocence because the report showed a lack of physical injury and therefore cast doubt on the claim of penetration. It thus cast doubt on the girl’s accusations. The appellate court found that the trial court’s determination on this point was made through clear and reasonable analysis.

Dilemma for Defendant Leads to Dismissal

The appellate court also found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the extremely late disclosure of the SANE exams required Mr. Easterling’s attorney to do much more work to prepare. This situation created a dilemma for Mr. Easterling. He had to choose between two constitutional rights:

  • his right to a timely trial
  • his right to a prepared attorney

Since the State’s mismanagement had put Mr. Easterling in this predicament, the trial court did not err when it when it dismissed the charges concerning the younger sister.

The trial court’s reversal of charges concerning the older sister was, though, reversed on appeal. The court of appeals said that the results of the younger sister’s SANE exam were not exculpatory as far as the charges involving her older sister were concerned, because the older sister had refused a physical exam. Therefore, there was no physical evidence from the exam that was relevant to the charges against Mr. Easterling involving the older girl. Those charges could proceed without any reference to Mr. Easterling’s alleged acts with the younger sister.