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Reversal of Molestation Conviction Due to Improperly Admitted Polygraph Evidence

August 3, 2019

The Georgia Court of Appeals affirmed the granting of a new trial for a defendant convicted of aggravated child molestation.

The Court found that it was error for the trial court to allow the State to introduce evidence that the defendant initially agreed to take a polygraph but then subsequently refused during the pretest interview with the examiner.

In State v. Parks, the defendant was accused of molesting his girlfriend’s 14-year-old daughter. The girl stated that she disclosed to the defendant that she had tried drugs and the defendant told her to perform oral sex on him or else he would tell her mom about the drugs. The girl also alleged that a few days later, the defendant engaged in forced anal sodomy with her.

After giving a statement to investigators where the defendant denied these allegations, the defendant agreed to take a polygraph examination. At trial, the polygraph examiner, who worked with the GBI, was called to testify and a video recording of the pretest interview was played for the jury.

During the interview, the examiner told the defendant that she believed something happened between him and the girl and that his story was filled with inconsistencies. She told him that she had reviewed the investigator’s reports and, based on her 20 years in law enforcement, his statement had “red flags all over” it. She stated that she didn’t think anyone would believe him, including “12 mamas and daddies sitting on [a] jury.” At this point, the defendant stated that he felt he needed an attorney and the exam was concluded.

After playing the video for the jury, the examiner conceded that she had not conducted any investigation in the case. She testified that everything she had learned about the case was either told to her by the investigator or from reading the incident reports.

Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion seeking to introduce evidence that the girl had previously made a false allegation that her brother had molested her. At the hearing on the motion, the brother testified that a couple years before the allegations in this case, his sister accused him of inappropriately touching her. As a result of the allegation against her brother, DFCS conducted an investigation and it did not result in any prosecution or arrest.  According to the brother, following the DFCS investigation, “nothing ever became of that.” The trial court held that this was merely a “non-specific comment as to inappropriate touching…[and] did not rise to the level of a true false allegation as contemplated by” the rules of evidence.

The defendant filed a motion for new trial which was granted by the trial court on the grounds that the evidence from the polygraph exam was improperly admitted and the evidence of the prior false allegation was improperly excluded. The State then appealed.

On appeal, the State argued that the defendant waived his right to appeal the admission of the polygraph evidence because his attorney failed to object at trial to the introduction of the video or to the testimony of the examiner. The Court of Appeals held that even despite defense counsel’s failure to object, the issue could still be reviewed for plain error.

The Court then noted that under Georgia law, it is well-established that evidence that a defendant initially agreed to take a polygraph but then later refused is not admissible at trial. Georgia case law is also clear that the State may never introduce evidence at trial of a defendant’s refusal to take a polygraph. Thus, in light of the long-standing precedent prohibiting the admission of this evidence, the trial court’s error in admitting it was clear and obvious.

The State also contended that even if the error was clear and obvious, the admission of the evidence did not affect the outcome of the trial. The Court of Appeals rejected this argument finding that in addition to the improperly admitted evidence of the defendant’s refusal to take the polygraph, the video contained numerous statements from the examiner that she did not believe what the defendant had told the investigators. The Court found that this evidence improperly bolstered the alleged victim’s credibility and prejudiced the defendant. As a result, the Court held that the admission of this evidence did affect the outcome of the trial.

The State also argued that the trial court properly excluded evidence of the girl’s prior false allegation because the defense failed to prove that the allegation was, in fact, false. The Court of Appeals agreed and held that even though the brother testified it was false and apparently passed a polygraph to that effect, and that DFCS had investigated it and found no other evidence to support it, there was no evidence as to the specifics of the allegation to confirm that it was sexual in nature. Therefore, the Court held that it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to exclude this evidence.

As a result of the Court’s ruling regarding the improper admission of the polygraph evidence, the Court reversed the defendant’s aggravated child molestation conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.

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