Rape Conviction Reversed After Trial Court Refused to Allow Deported Witness to Testify by Telephone

The Washington State Court of Appeals has reversed Arturo Cayetano-Jaimes’s conviction for rape of a child in the first degree. It has ordered a new trial because the trial court in Skagit County excluded highly relevant testimony from the alleged victim’s mother.

Cayetano-Jaimes was the brother of the alleged victim’s stepfather. The alleged victim lived in Mount Vernon, Washington, with her uncle and aunt after her mother, Laura Camacho, and stepfather were deported to Mexico. Camacho could not be physically present at the trial to testify because she had been deported.

The alleged victim claimed that Cayetano-Jaimes, while babysitting her, asked her to “lick his private.” She claimed to have had his penis in her mouth, and to have told him that she did not want to do it anymore.

At trial, Cayetano-Jaimes made a motion to allow Camacho to testify by telephone from Mexico. Camacho would testify that she and her husband never left their daughter in the care of Cayetano-Jaimes during the time periods when the State alleged he had raped the girl. The court denied the motion, reasoning that telephonic testimony is not reliable and that the jury would not be able to assess Camacho’s credibility over the telephone.

Cayetano-Jaimes then tried to admit Camacho’s testimony via Skype. The court excluded it because Camacho was at a busy Internet cafe in Mexico, which made it difficult for the jury to hear or see her.

Without the testimony of Camacho, the jury convicted Cayetano-Jaimes. He appealed, arguing that the trial court’s exclusion of Camacho’s testimony by telephone violated his constitutional right to present a complete defense.

The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees due process to criminal defendants, including the right to be heard and to offer witness testimony at trial—the right to present a defense. If the testimony is relevant to the case, it can only be excluded if the State shows that the evidence is prejudicial and interferes with the fairness of the trial. Although Washington courts have broad control over evidence presented at trial, the court may not prevent a criminal defendant from presenting evidence that is “material,” or essential, to his or her defense.

The appellate court compared Cayetano-Jaimes’s case to those cases where a complete exclusion of certain types of evidence violates the constitutional right to present a defense. For instance, in the case of Washington v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a Texas statute was unconstitutional for prohibiting testimony of anyone charged as an accomplice in the crime at issue. Ultimately, the jury is the sole decider about whether a particular witness’s testimony is believable.

Reasoning similarly to the opinion in Washington v. Texas, the Washington Court of Appeals noted that completely prohibiting telephonic testimony could be unconstitutional. Camacho’s testimony provided a complete defense to the crime because it gave Cayetano-Jaimes an alibi. Thus, it was highly probative and material and should not have been excluded.

The prosecution failed to explain how challenging Camacho’s credibility would be different because she testified by phone, especially since it had no reason to question Camacho’s identity. Thus, allowing the telephonic testimony would not disrupt the fairness of the trial. The jury would still be able to determine whether Camacho’s testimony was credible.

Because the testimony of Camacho could have caused the jury to acquit, the appellate court remanded the case for a new trial. The court was careful not to make a new rule about the admissibility of telephonic testimony. It ruled only that in this case the trial court had violated the defendant’s right to present a complete defense by not allowing such testimony.