Citing prior decisions where a defendant’s escape during trial was held admissible as circumstantial evidence of guilt, the Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant's convictions.
In Maner v. State, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that the trial court properly allowed the prosecution to introduce evidence of other acts of molestation involving the defendant as well as evidence of the defendant’s flight from his first trial.
The defendant was accused in the current indictment of committing acts of molestation on his two nieces – both are his sister’s daughters. He argued on appeal that the trial court unfairly permitted the State to introduce evidence that he engaged in alleged sexual acts many years ago with his sister. It was alleged that the defendant committed these acts against his sister in 1958 when he was just 14 years old himself.
He argued these instances were too far in the past to be relevant to the case in question. The appeals court had to decide if the evidence of these prior acts was unfair or prejudicial to the defense.
While evidence of prior acts of molestation are admissible under OCGA §24-4-414, they may still be excluded under OCGA § 24-4-403 if the court finds that the probative value is outweighed by the potential prejudicial effect it may have on the jury.
The Court of Appeals noted that the exclusion of evidence under Rule 403 is a remedy that should be used sparingly and that on appeal the evidence will be viewed in a light most favorable to support its admission at trial.
The appeals court found that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence of the other acts since they were relevant to show the defendant’s lustful disposition with respect to preteen or teenage girls as well as his pattern of molesting young girls he was living with. It held that while over 50 years had elapsed since the alleged acts with the sister, that fact alone was not enough to exclude the evidence.
The defendant also argued that the trial court’s instruction on how to consider the other acts evidence was confusing to the jury. He contended that while the evidence was admitted for specific limited purposes (to show the defendant’s lustful disposition and intent), the trial court instructed the jury that it could consider the evidence for “any matter” they deemed relevant.
The defendant compared this to a similar instruction from Dixon v. State where the Court of Appeals found the instruction “not ideal” yet a correct statement of the law. Since the defendant’s trial counsel did not object to the jury instruction, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether the instruction constituted plain error which affected the substantial rights of the defendant.
Citing Dixon, the Court of Appeals held that the instruction did not constitute plain error and the court’s instructions as a whole were sufficient to properly inform the jury of how to consider the other acts evidence during deliberations.
The defendant’s trial on these charges was first set to begin in 2012. The prosecution sought to introduce evidence that the defendant fled the courthouse just prior to the jury being sworn in and he never returned. He was then arrested five years later.
The trial court held that the evidence would be admissible to show the reason for the delay in bringing the defendant to trial and that the defendant’s flight was evidence of his consciousness of guilt. The defendant argued that since the escape was two years after his initial arrest, it had nothing to do with his consciousness of guilt.
The Court of Appeals disagreed and cited prior decisions where a defendant’s escape during trial was admissible and could be considered circumstantial evidence of his guilt. The Court held that the jury must weigh this factor along with the other circumstances of his flight to determine whether it was due to a feeling of guilt or some other reason.
As a result, the Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant’s child molestation convictions.
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