Understanding When Past Crimes Can be Used Against You
The Ohio Supreme Court recently clarified an important matter, one that could make the difference between freedom and prison.
One case concerned a man convicted of rape after evidence of a prior unrelated assault was presented at his jury trial. Another case involved a man convicted of molesting a young girl after evidence of prior assault allegations was introduced at his jury trial. As such, many wondered why evidence of past crimes could be used in some criminal trials on new charges but not others.
State of Ohio v. Mitchell Hartman
The first case involved Mitchell Hartman, a 40-year-old man convicted of raping a woman in a hotel room after a night of drinking in October 2015. The woman is identified as “E.W.” and alleged that Hartman entered the room and initiated unwanted sexual activity, although Hartman argued that it was consensual.
During the jury trial, prosecutors had Hartman’s former stepdaughter testify about Hartman’s earlier assault against her while she was in her bedroom at night. The jury found Hartman guilty of two rape counts but not-guilty of his burglary and kidnapping charges. Deemed a sexually violent predator by the jurors, Hartman is serving a sentence on 10 years to life in prison.
However, although the trial court permitted the use of Hartman’s former stepdaughter’s testimony as evidence, the Eighth District Court of Appeals said her testimony should not have been admitted and therefore reversed the convictions.
The Ohio Supreme Court sided with Hartman by upholding the appeals court ruling, asserting that evidence of criminal acts can be admitted in some cases, but such admission wasn’t appropriate in Hartman’s case. Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote, “Here, Hartman’s molestation of his stepdaughter four years prior was not linked to any overarching plan to commit rape against E.W.” He further stated that “The incidents are wholly distinct … the other-acts evidence in this case contains few similarities to the crimes charged. Thus, the evidence was not relevant to show a common scheme or plan.”
State of Ohio v. Michael Smith
65-year-old Michael Smith was charged and convicted of gross sexual imposition and disseminating matter harmful to juveniles, and is serving a 9-year sentence as a result. An appeals court upheld his conviction, and justices agreed.
Smith’s charges came from a January 2016 incident involving his young granddaughter. Testimony was permitted during his trial describing comparable crimes that Smith committed against his daughters decades earlier. This was allowed because documents demonstrated that “the conduct was similar in both situations” and “Smith had shown scenes of oral sex to minors and had abused a minor who was asleep in the same bed as him.”
Justice DeWine wrote “The detailed facts of Smith’s molestation … were so similar as to ‘strongly suggest that an innocent explanation is implausible’ …” and further stated that since Smith claimed his actions were accidental and not done with sexual intent, the testimonial evidence during his trial was properly admissible to help prove that he did not make a mistake. Instead, the evidence showed that his alleged crimes weren’t accidental but committed on purpose for sexual gratification.
As a result of the Ohio Supreme Court’s clarification, we understand that evidence of past crimes must be introduced only in certain situations. If a defendant with prior convictions faces new criminal charges, the evidence presented at their trial must be relevant and comparable to such earlier convictions.
These guidelines give our Columbus sex crimes defense lawyers a clearer understanding of when certain evidence can and cannot be used against our clients. Thus, we believe the Ohio Supreme Court’s answer regarding the use of other-acts evidence can benefit our clients in immeasurable ways, as it can make a significant impact on their verdicts.