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Case Remanded for Ruling on Admissibility of Prior False Allegation

July 14, 2020

Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals handed down the third decision in Ray v. State over whether the defense could introduce evidence at trial of prior false allegations of sexual abuse made by the alleged victim’s aunt.

The Court of Appeals had initially ruled that the evidence was likely admissible under the prior precedent established by Smith v. State. However, the Supreme Court then overruled Smith and held in Burns v. State that the admission of the evidence is subject to an analysis under Rule 403. In this third opinion, rather than re-analyzing the issue under the new standard, the Court remanded the case back to the trial court for a determination of whether this evidence should be admissible under Rule 403.

Case Background

In December 2009, the alleged victim, who was a mentally challenged adult, disclosed to a family member that the appellant assaulted her. This family member reported the assault to police. In a subsequent forensic interview, the alleged victim made claims of several incidents of sexual abuse.

State’s Motion to Exclude the Prior False Allegation

Prior to trial, the prosecution filed a motion to exclude “any testimony of alleged prior false allegations of sexual abuse” absent a determination of relevancy under O.C.G.A. § 24-1-104 and a showing of “reasonable probability” that the allegations were false.

Specifically, the prosecution moved to exclude testimony concerning sexual abuse allegations made years earlier by a child against her father in the presence of the current victim’s deceased aunt, who was the same family member who reported the accusations now in question.

The prosecution tried to exclude this information because the defense had previously claimed that the alleged victim was coached into making false allegations by the deceased aunt. However, despite the defense responding to the motion with a proffer of testimony from the aunt’s daughter about the alleged prior false allegation, where she admitted to being persuaded to report the rape, the trial court held that testimony concerning the aunt’s prior false report was inadmissible as it was not “relevant.”

Rule 403 and Prior False Allegations

While the Georgia Supreme Court went on to vacate this decision in light of Burns, it also emphasized that Rule 403 is an “extraordinary remedy that should be used sparingly” and added that “evidence that the complaining witness has made a prior false allegation of sexual misconduct is not of scant probative force.”

Under Rule 403 or O.C.G.A. §24-4-403, “relevant evidence may be excluded if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury.” The issue in this case is that the original motion to exclude the evidence of the prior false allegation cited only O.C.G.A. § 24-1-104, which only concerns “preliminary” determinations of relevance, but “shall not limit the right of a party to introduce evidence relevant to weight or credibility.”

Therefore, the Court determined that it is entirely feasible that testimony regarding the alleged victim’s deceased aunt previously making a false sexual abuse claim against another would be relevant to the present case. However, to make a definitive decision, the trial court was responsible for determining whether the evidence is “substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”

As a result of this ruling, the appeals court remanded the appellant’s case to the trial court for further consideration. There, the probative value of the prior false allegation under Rule 403 will be definitively determined as well as whether the appellant’s claims of ineffective assistance of counsel hold any subsequent merit.

Possible Outcomes on Remand

If the trial court determines that Rule 403 would have prevented the jury from learning about the prior false allegation, the ineffective assistance of counsel claim would therefore not apply and the court may reinstate the convictions. However, if the trial court rules that the appellant was unfairly prejudiced by the exclusion of this evidence, it will likely grant him a new trial.

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