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Court of Appeals Affirms Granting of New Trial in Molestation Case

January 19, 2022

The Court of Appeals agreed that there was a reasonable likelihood that the prosecution’s derivative use of the evidence contributed to the jury’s verdict, resulting in the granting a new trial.

In State v. Ward, the defendant was a police officer accused by a teenage boy of child molestation. The allegation led to an internal affairs investigation where the defendant was interviewed regarding his relationship with the boy. The appeal in this case centered around the State’s use of the statements that were made during the course of this investigation, despite the trial court’s finding that such statements were inadmissible.

Exclusion of Internal Affairs Interview

Prior to trial, the defense attorney filed a motion to exclude any evidence gathered during the course of the internal affairs investigation. The trial court granted the motion and found that the statements made by the defendant during this interview were “coerced” since they were made with the fear that he would be terminated by the police department if he failed to cooperate with their investigation.

At trial, the internal affairs investigator testified to the fact that an investigation was conducted, but did not provide any details about it. After the defendant testified and stated that he did not molest the boy, that same investigator was recalled by the State in rebuttal. The investigator then stated that he would not believe the defendant if he testified under oath.

State’s Derivative Use of the Coerced Statements

Prior to trial, the district attorney’s office obtained the materials from the internal affairs investigation via an open records request. The question in this appeal was whether the testimony elicited from the internal affairs investigator in rebuttal amounted to the derivative use of the defendant’s statements from the interview. Under the law, the prosecution may not use any statements that were found to be coerced from the defendant in order to gather additional evidence to be used against him at trial.

At the motion for new trial hearing, the internal affairs investigator testified that after interviewing the defendant he formed the opinion that he was not a truthful person. He stated that the prosecutors were aware of his opinion as well as the fact that it was based mostly on the defendant’s conduct during the interview.

The trial court held that because the defendant’s credibility was central to the case, the investigator’s testimony on rebuttal could have impacted the jury’s verdict. The trial court also ruled that the defendant’s trial attorney was ineffective for failing to raise this issue prior to or during the trial.

The Court of Appeals noted that the prosecutors seemed to be unaware that they were prohibited from using the defendant’s statements to gather new evidence or to formulate the questioning of their witnesses at trial. The motion for new trial hearing revealed that there were many instances where the information from the internal affairs interview was used by the prosecutors while they were prepping their witnesses for trial. Additionally, the Court found that the investigator’s rebuttal testimony concerning the defendant’s truthfulness was a textbook example of evidence that was only made possible by their review of the defendant’s interview.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court that there was a reasonable likelihood that the prosecution’s derivative use of this evidence contributed to the jury’s verdict. This is especially true considering that the internal affairs investigator was a high-ranking officer in the police department – so his opinion of the defendant’s truthfulness was quite likely to be compelling to the jurors.

As a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of the defendant’s motion for new trial.

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