The Supreme Court found that the failure to impeach the alleged victim with prior inconsistent statements left the jury with little reason to doubt her credibility.
In Smith v. Chandler, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the granting of habeas relief to a petitioner convicted of child molestation, finding that his trial attorney rendered ineffective assistance of counsel.
The petitioner was accused of molesting his stepdaughter. He was convicted at trial and the conviction was then affirmed on appeal. In a petition for habeas corpus relief, the petitioner claimed that his trial attorney failed to introduce medical records showing that the girl made a number of inconsistent statements regarding the alleged abuse.
The statements in question centered around the girl’s description of the alleged molestation. Initially, the girl told her mother that the petitioner had been “touching on” her for years and that she might be pregnant with his child. In the subsequent forensic interview, the girl said that he engaged in oral sex with her and that he inserted something in her vagina.
However, in the girl’s medical records, a note from a nurse stated, “Pt. told officer that she [was] only touched by stepfather no sexual penetration occurred, told officer that they fight often.”
Additionally, there was a note from the treating physician that the girl was “unsure if she has been sexually penetrated by [petitioner’s] penis in the past vaginally” and that she “denies any oral contact.”
The habeas court found that his trial attorney was ineffective for failing to use this evidence to impeach the girl’s credibility. It also found that his appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to raise this issue in his appeal.
The court reasoned that without this evidence, the jury “was completely unaware” that the girl had ever been inconsistent in her statements about the alleged abuse. Because the case hinged entirely on the girl’s credibility, the court found that there was a reasonable likelihood that with this evidence the outcome would have been different.
On appeal, the Supreme Court noted that the trial attorney did not ask the girl a single question about her statements at the hospital despite the fact that they were admissible as prior inconsistent statements. Plus, if she was asked about the statements and she claimed not to remember them, then the medical records would have been admissible as extrinsic evidence under Rule 613(b).
At the habeas hearing, the trial attorney even testified that his strategy at trial was to show that the girl “was lying, and she wasn’t trustworthy, and she didn’t like [the defendant].” The Court found that not impeaching her with these statements ran counter to that strategy.
The Court explained that without this evidence, it was just the defendant’s word against the girl’s. But, with this evidence, the jury had a reason to conclude that the girl’s allegations were “a deliberate fabrication designed to harm [the defendant].”
As such, the Court found that no reasonably competent attorney would have chosen not to present this evidence at trial. The Court also held that it could not say that the jury would have reached the same result had it been presented with the evidence of these statements.
As a result, the Court affirmed the granting of habeas relief and the defendant’s child molestation convictions were vacated.
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