For the past six months, we have been waiting to find out whether the Georgia Supreme Court would keep intact the long-standing rule in Georgia that evidence of prior false allegations made by an alleged victim in a sex offense case is admissible to impeach her credibility at trial. While the Court held that its prior decisions, which have been relied on for decades, were wrongly decided, the Court ultimately concluded that evidence of an alleged victim’s prior false allegations were of sufficient probative value to be admissible at trial.
In Burns v. State, the Court granted certiorari to determine whether its 1989 decision in Smith v. State was correctly decided and whether evidence of prior false accusations made by an alleged victim can be excluded by the trial court in a sex offense case (See, Supreme Court to Review Admissibility of Prior False Allegations). In Burns, the defendant was charged with sexual battery, aggravated sodomy, and incest. The State filed a motion in limine to exclude evidence that the alleged victim had made a prior false rape allegation. The trial court ruled that the prior false allegation was inadmissible under O.C.G.A. § 24-4-403 as its probative value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice and confusion of the issues at trial. The Court of Appeals reversed, relying on Smith v. State and holding that Rule 403 “must yield to greater constitutional concerns,” including the defendant’s right to confront his accusers and present a full defense.
The Supreme Court now believes that the Smith decision incorrectly relied on the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments in creating a per se rule that evidence of prior false allegations were admissible, regardless of other rules of evidence. As a result, the Court held that the Smith decision, as well as the countless other cases that have relied on it over the past 30 years, must be overruled.
Next, the Court turned to the question of how Rule 403 applies to evidence of prior false allegations by an alleged victim in a sex offense prosecution. First, the Court noted that there is no constitutional impediment to excluding this type of evidence under Rule 403 and that the Court of Appeals was incorrect in holding otherwise. However, the Court also pointed to its prior decisions which have held that “the exclusion of evidence under Rule 403 ‘is an extraordinary remedy which should be used only sparingly.’”
The Court noted that the rule’s primary function is to keep out evidence of “scant or cumulative” probative value. The Court reasoned that in a sex offense prosecution, where the cases typically come down to witness credibility, evidence that the alleged victim has made a prior false allegation of sexual abuse or misconduct is certainly not of “scant” probative value. The Court stated that such evidence would not confuse a jury or cause unfair prejudice to the State, but would rather “facilitate a reasoned decision based on the evidence and determinations of credibility.”
As a result, the Court concluded that the Court of Appeals was ultimately correct in reversing the trial court’s ruling and held that Rule 403 would not prohibit the defendant from introducing the alleged victim’s prior false allegation at trial. However, in a cryptic footnote at the end of the opinion, the Court stated, “We note that, though our analysis concludes with the application of O.C.G.A. § 24-4-403, there may be other rules of evidence or law which bear on the admission or exclusion of the disputed evidence.”
So, only time will tell as to whether the courts will find some other way to justify excluding evidence of prior false allegations at trial. As for now, the defendant’s right to present this evidence has been preserved and criminal defense attorneys in Georgia can continue to pursue this type of evidence to impeach the credibility of alleged victims in sex offense cases.