September 17, 2014

Sexual abuse measure could lead to wrongful convictions, attorneys say

See also: Missouri Evidence in Sexual Crimes Against Minors, Amendment 2 (2014)
9-17-2014 Missouri:

A Missouri ballot measure that would allow allegations of past actions to be used against people facing child sexual abuse charges could lead to more wrongful convictions of the falsely accused, a prominent defense attorney said Wednesday.

The proposed constitutional amendment is backed by prosecutors, sheriffs and police chiefs’ groups.

It would allow past criminal acts — even alleged crimes that didn’t result in convictions — to be used to corroborate victim testimony or demonstrate a defendant’s propensity to commit such crimes when people face sex-related charges involving victims younger than 18. However, the evidence’s admissibility is at the judge’s discretion, meaning if the judge doesn’t think it is relevant to the matter being tried then it can not be used.

Currently the previous acts of defendants cannot be presented as evidence to a jury unless they waive their Fifth Amendment rights and testify. The past allegations can also be taken into consideration by judges during sentencing hearings after the defendant has been found guilty.

If approved by Missouri voters in November, Constitutional Amendment 2 could make it more difficult for defendants to persuade juries and judges of their innocence, said Kim Benjamin, a Belton attorney who is the past president of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“You’re now defending your entire life, your entire reputation, rather than this one act,” she said. “It causes a tremendous risk for more people to be wrongly convicted.”

One of Benjamin’s most prominent clients was Burrell Mohler Sr., the patriarch of a western Missouri family who was accused along with his four sons of sexually abusing young relatives over many years. The charges ultimately were dropped in March 2012, after Mohler had spent more than two years in jail while awaiting trial.

The proposal, which was referred to the ballot by the Legislature in 2013, is a backlash against a December 2007 Missouri Supreme Court decision of State v. Ellison that struck down a state law allowing evidence of past sexual crimes to be used against people facing new sex-related charges involving victims younger than 14. Before Ellison, the Legislature had twice tried to establish legislation that would make the state’s statues regarding these issues mimic federal law, but both attempts were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. ..Continued.. by News Tribune staff and AP wire reports

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