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Trial Court Erroneously Admits Prior Convictions Against Defendant in Rape Trial

August 23, 2022

Trial court fails to set forth its reasons as to why the defendant's convictions from 10-plus years ago were so probative that they outweighed any prejudicial effect.

In Johnson v. State, the defendant appealed his convictions for rape and aggravated assault. He argued several grounds on appeal that were rejected by the appeals court. However, the Georgia Court of Appeals did find that the trial court failed to engage in the required balancing test before permitting the State to introduce evidence of his prior convictions during its cross-examination of the defendant.

Arguments Rejected on Appeal

The defendant first argued that it was error for the trial court to permit the lead detective to testify that she believed the alleged victim was telling the truth. During her testimony, she was asked by the prosecutor, “did you believe her statement that she was raped?” The detective responded, “I did.” The appeals court agreed with the defendant that this was improper bolstering testimony, but held that it did not likely affect the jury’s verdict. The Court reasoned that it should not have been surprising to the jury to hear that the lead detective believed the alleged victim’s claims. The court also noted that the testimony was brief and was quickly objected to by the defense attorney.

Another argument raised on appeal was that the trial court erred in allowing the State to introduce evidence of a prior rape allegation made against the defendant. The case was ultimately resolved with a guilty plea to a lesser offense (aggravated assault). The Court held that the testimony of the alleged victim and the detective from the prior case, coupled with the defendant’s guilty plea, was sufficient for the prior allegation to be presented to the jury.

Cross Examination of the Defendant

The defendant testified at trial and denied raping the alleged victim. On cross-examination, the trial court allowed the State to introduce two of his prior felony convictions for purposes of impeaching his credibility. Both of these convictions were over ten years old.

The defense objected to the use of these prior convictions but the trial court stated on the record that “the probative value of the convictions supported by specific facts and circumstances in this case outweighs any prejudicial effect.”

The issue here is that the Georgia Supreme Court has held that the trial court must make it clear on the record which “facts and circumstances” it is using to support its ruling. The Supreme Court has listed a set of suggested factors for trial courts to consider: the nature of the prior crime; the age of the conviction and any subsequent criminal history of the defendant; any similarity between the prior crime and the current charges; and the importance of the defendant’s testimony and credibility to the overall outcome of the trial.

Remanding Case Back to the Trial Court

Due to the defects in the trial court’s ruling, the Court of Appeals is remanding the case back to the trial court for it to reconsider this issue in light of the mandate from the Georgia Supreme Court. As a result, the trial court basically has two choices: (1) leave its ruling intact and just supplement it with the specific facts and circumstances that support the admission of these prior convictions; or (2) vacate its ruling and find that there is not a sufficient factual basis to find that the probative value of these convictions outweighs any prejudicial effect.

If the trial court concludes that the latter is the case, the trial court would then have to determine whether the admission of these convictions was harmless. If it was not harmless, and likely had an effect on the outcome of the trial, then the defendant would be entitled to a new trial.

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