Tuesday, August 5, 2014
In Missouri v. Porter (July 29, 2014), the Supreme Court of Missouri abolished two odd doctrines formerly applicable during sufficiency of the evidence challenges to sex crimes convictions. The first, known as the "corroboration rule," provided "that an appellate court is to disregard a sex crime victim's testimony if it is contradictory and uncorroborated." See page 1, footnote 1 of the opinion. The second, the "destructive contradictions doctrine," was theoretically applicable in all criminal cases (although it seemed to be applied pretty much only in sex crime cases), and it specified "that an appellate court is to disregard a sex crime victim's testimony if it is contradictory and uncorroborated." See id.
Sylvester Porter was convicted of two counts of statutory sodomy in the first degree. The victim, who was three years old, lived in a St. Louis rooming house at which Porter was the landlord. Both in her trial testimony and in her prior out-of-court statements, the victim gave conflicting reports of Porter's conduct. At certain times she appeared to recant her accusations entirely, including one instance in which she stated that her grandmother told her to accuse Porter.
The defense argued that under the "corroboration rule," the convictions must be set aside for want of sufficient evidence. The argument was that because the child victim contradicted herself, the state must corroborate her testimony with independent evidence. Because there was no physical evidence of the sex acts at issue on appeal (contact between the defendant's hand and tongue and the victim's vagina), corroboration---were it required---would be difficult. As noted in the prosecution's brief, the corroboration rule has been criticized in the state's intermediate appellate courts and has been applied in an inconsistent manner, causing some confusion. The state also noted that the rule has its roots in archaic substantive and procedural law concerning rape. See State v. Goodale, 109 S.W. 9, 11 (Mo. 1908) (quoting Lord Hale's much assailed statement that "it must be remembered that this [i.e., rape] is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, though never so innocent"). Such was the attitude of Missouri courts a century ago in rape cases. In State v. Sibley, 33 S.W. 167, 171 (Mo. 1895), the Supreme Court of Missouri stated that "[i]t is a matter of common knowledge that the bad character of a man for chastity does not even in the remotest degree affect his character for truth, when based upon that alone, while it does that of a woman," and the court even included a few examples of "great and noble men" known for sexual dalliances who otherwise exhibited utmost probity.
Indeed, in defending the corroboration rule at oral argument, defense counsel paraphrased Hale. (Listen beginning at 0:42 of the audio, where counsel argues that Missouri courts have recognized that "especially in sex cases, these are allegations that are easily made and very difficult to prove one's innocence of.") The judges were not having it, as the tone of their questioning made clear.
The court's unanimous opinion stated that "the rule necessarily is premised on two assumptions: (1) that the testimony of sex crime victims is inherently less credible than the testimony of other crime victims; and (2) that judges and juries are uniquely unable to make accurate factual determinations in sex crime cases." (See pages 6-7.) Finding those assumptions to lack support, the court abolished the corroboration rule.
It also dispatched the "destructive contradictions doctrine," concluding that "it too requires appellate courts to engage in credibility determinations that are properly left to judges and juries sitting as triers of fact." (See pages 7-8.)
In the end, all that was left for Porter was the normal sufficiency of the evidence standard, which when applied to his case yielded the usual result, affirmance of the conviction. (See pages 8-11.) The jury was entitled to believe his three-year-old victim, and appellate courts will leave the credibility determination to the jury.
- Ben Trachtenberg