Washington Court of Appeals Reverses For Improperly Admitting Evidence of Prior Child Molestations

In State v. Slocum, the trial court convicted the defendant of first-degree child molestation and third-degree child rape of his step-granddaughter. During the trial, the step-granddaughter’s mother and aunt each testified that Slocum had molested her when she was a child. Slocum appealed on the basis that the mother and the aunt’s testimony was inadmissible.

Evidence of prior bad acts, such as prior child molestation, is generally inadmissible. It tempts a jury to convict the defendant because he is a bad person, even if the evidence he committed the charged crime is weak. Here, the danger was that the jury would convict Slocum because he had committed child molestation in the past, not because the jury was persuaded Slocum had committed the child molestation charged in this case. The Court of Appeals has recognized that the danger of such “propensity reasoning” is “at its highest” in sex offense cases.

The State argued the mother’s and aunt’s testimony was admissible under an exception to the prior bad acts rule: that such evidence may be admitted to prove a common scheme or plan. The State argued that Slocum had a plan to molest children, that he performed the same type of abuse on children of similar age, and that he had similar positions of authority with each child.

The trial judge had accepted that argument in admitting the evidence.

The Court of Appeals disagreed. It held the testimony inadmissible. It reasoned that evidence of prior bad acts was admissible to prove a common scheme where there were “several crimes constitut[ing] parts of a defendant’s overarching plan.” There must be similar acts of misconduct, similar victims, and similar circumstances.

Here, the court found that the mother and aunt’s allegations and the step-granddaughter’s allegations were not significantly similar. While the complainants were all related to the defendant through marriage, the court thought it noteworthy that the step-granddaughter was much younger than the aunt and mother when their molestations began. Also, the step-granddaughter alleged that the molestation was ongoing over the course of years, while the mother and aunt testified about a few, isolated incidents. Finally, the court found that only one incident alleged by the mother had facts similar to those alleged by the step-granddaughter.

The Court of Appeals found that the trial judge made a prejudicial error in admitting the testimony, and reversed the conviction.