Monday, June 11, 2012

Sexual Assault, Character and Login Identification

After being convicted of “one count of sexual assault in the fourth degree in violation of [Connecticut] General Statutes § 53a–73a(a)(6)”, Adam Benedict appealed.  State v. Benedict, __ A.3d __, 2012 WL 1937453 (Connecticut Court of Appeals 2012). 

According to the opinion, the “complainant”, who accused Benedict of sexual assault, was “a seventeen year old senior at Litchfield High School” and he was “a substitute teacher and athletic coach at” the same school. State v. Benedict, supra.  The opinion says that he

first contacted the complainant outside of school in January or February, 2007. A week or two later, [Benedict] called [her] while she was visiting a friend's residence and offered to pick her up. [She] agreed. When [he] and his friend arrived at [her] friend's residence, [he] appeared to be intoxicated. After [his] friend drove [Benedict] and the complainant to [his] residence, the friend departed.

State v. Benedict, supra. 

The opinion says that after they entered Benedict’s residence, she “followed him into his bedroom,” where

he kissed her, took off her shirt, kissed her chest and sucked on her breasts. . . . Thereafter, [Benedict] exposed his penis and requested that [she] perform fellatio on him. When [she] refused, [he] returned his penis to his pants and continued rubbing his genital region against her leg until he ejaculated. After changing his clothing, [Benedict] lay down on the bed with [her], kissed her, squeezed her breasts and fell asleep. [She] remained at [his] residence until the following morning.

State v. Benedict, supra.  (The opinion includes more details, but they're really not needed for our purposes.)

After she graduated from high school, and “in June or July" of 2007,  the complainant, “accompanied by her boyfriend and another female complainant, went to the state police barracks in Litchfield to file a complaint against” Benedict. State v. Benedict, supra.  “On the basis of that complaint,” he was “arrested and charged with three counts of sexual assault in the fourth degree in violation of § 53a–73a (a)(6)State v. Benedict, supra.  

Two counts related to separate alleged incidents involving sexual contact between [Benedict] and the complainant, and one count related to a third alleged incident involving sexual contact between [him] and the other female complainant.

After a jury trial, [he] was convicted . . . of one count of sexual assault in the fourth degree against the complainant. . . . He later was sentenced . . . to a term of one year incarceration, execution suspended after ninety days, and three years of probation with special conditions

State v. Benedict, supra.  (The jury found him “not guilty of the charge relating to” the “other female complainant”.  State v. Benedict, supra.)

Benedict raised two issues on appeal, only one of which we’re concerned with. 

(The other was his claim that the trial judge erred in limiting his attorney’s ability to question the complainant about the “special conditions” of her pretrial diversionary program on a “pending felony charge”.  State v. Benedict, supra.  The Court of Appeals found the judge erred and, in so doing, violated Benedict’s 6th Amendment right to confront witnesses against him. State v. Benedict, supra.   It found this denied him the ability to show she might have testified against him because she was hoping to “garner favor with the” prosecution and gain its help in dealing with the charge against her.  State v. Benedict, supra.

The one we’re concerned with is Benedict’s argument that the trial judge (also) erred in allowing the prosecution “to question [him] and his character witnesses about his social media website login identification, smoothcriminal77”.  State v. Benedict, supra.  He argued that the evidence was admitted in violation of Connecticut Code ofEvidence § 4-4, which governs the admissibility of “character evidence”.  State v. Benedict, supra.

As Wikipedia explains, character evidence is a term the law of evidence uses “to describe any testimony or document submitted for the purpose of proving that a person acted in a particular way on a particular occasion based on the character or disposition of that person.”  Here, Benedict argued that

because the court had narrowed the scope of permissible character evidence to that which related to a specific element of the crime charged, to which the login identification was irrelevant, such evidence went only to general bad character and was thus inadmissible at trial.

State v. Benedict, supra.

As noted above, Benedict relied on Connecticut Code of Evidence § 4-4, which states that

[e]vidence of a trait of character of a person is inadmissible for the purpose of proving that the person acted in conformity with the character trait on a particular occasion” with certain exceptions. 

Connecticut Code of Evidence § 4-4(a).  The only exception that would seem to apply here is the one codified in Connecticut Code of Evidence § 4-4(a)(1), which states that a court can admit

[e]vidence of a specific trait of character of the accused relevant to an element of the crime charged offered by an accused, or by the prosecution to rebut such evidence introduced by the accused.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis of Benedict’s argument by noting that certain “additional facts [were] necessary to” its resolution of the argument.  State v. Benedict, supra. They were as follows:

During cross-examination of [Benedict] defense counsel objected to the state's questioning of him regarding his MySpace login identification on the ground that it was irrelevant. 

The prosecutor responded: `As far as what his login ID was, “smooth criminal,” if I didn't think he was going to call a bunch of character witnesses, his pastor and things like that, then, arguably, I don't know that I would offer it. But if there's going to be a bunch of character witnesses to say what a good person he is, I think it becomes relevant.’

In ruling on the objection, the court stated: `I'm going to sustain your objection in most part. You can put the title of the -- if it's an identification . . . feature of a Facebook, I'll allow it in for that purpose. . . . I am sustaining your objection 90 percent of what the content of the song is, but it's an identifying feature on Facebook or Twitter, or whatever, I'll allow it in just for that purpose. Okay . . . ?’ Defense counsel responded, `[s]o it's limited to the title of the song.’ The court inquired, `[o]kay?’ to which defense counsel answered, `[t]hank you.’

State v. Benedict, supra.

After Benedict testified, his lawyer said he “did indeed intend to call character witnesses to testify.”  State v. Benedict, supra. The prosecution objected on the grounds that “the admission of general character evidence was improper.”  State v. Benedict, supra.  The trial judge found,

pursuant to § 4–4 of the Connecticut Code of Evidence, that [Benedict’] character witnesses could testify, but only as to [his] character trait of not having sexual contact with students. 

During his cross-examination of three of [Benedict’s] character witnesses, the prosecutor referred to [his] login identification and inquired about whether the witnesses knew if [he] was the type of person who would have such an identification. These references constitute the basis of [Benedict’s claim [on appeal].

State v. Benedict, supra.

The Court of Appeals then outlined the general principles involved in its reviewing that claim:

`Evidence of an accused's trait of character must be relevant to an element of the crime charged.’ State v. Martin, 170 Conn. 161, 365 A.2d 104 (1976). `When a character witness has given his opinion as to a particular trait, the state may cross-examine that witness concerning specific acts, not to prove the truth of such facts, but to test the credibility of the character witness by ascertaining his good faith, his source and amount of information and his accuracy.’ [State v. Martin, supra.]

`[W]hen the prosecutor attacks the basis of the witness' opinion by questioning him as to his knowledge of specific acts, such acts must be relevant to those traits.’ [State v. Martin, supra.] `The [s]tate's rebuttal evidence . . . may not include other traits or that which merely reflects on the accused's general good or bad character.’ C. Tait & E. Prescott, Connecticut Evidence (4th Ed.2008) § 4.13.3, pp. 148–49. 

State v. Benedict, supra.

It found, first, that the trial judge “narrowed the scope of permissible character evidence to [Benedict’s] character trait of not having sexual contact with students, which tends to negate an element of the crime charged.”  State v. Benedict, supra. It pointed out, in a footnote, that “[u]nlawful sexual contact with a student is one of the elements of the offense with which [he] was charged.”  State v. Benedict, supra.

The Court of Appeals then held that

[d]espite the state's attempt to identify an attenuated connection between [Benedict’s] login identification of `smoothcriminal77’ and the crime that he allegedly committed, we conclude that the login identification does not specifically relate to the trait for which character evidence was permissible. Rather, [his] login identification can only be characterized as impermissible general bad character evidence.

We conclude, therefore, that in allowing the state to question the witnesses regarding [Benedict’s] login identification, the court abused its discretion.

State v. Benedict, supra.

For this reason, and the reason noted earlier, the court therefore reversed his conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.  State v. Benedict, supra.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good thing all my user names have been changed from "Baby Raping Car Thief" to "Happy bunnies playing softly in the meadow" That way I can avoid some stupid DA from trying to pull this stunt on me.

If you have to go so low as to basically say the guy is a child raper simply because his gamer tag / profile or FB login name is Smooth Criminal77, you much not have much of a case to begin with. Thats called scrapping the bottom of the barrell.

Plus, the fact that this case has been sitting around for over five years shows what a stinker this case is.