EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Piercing the Shield: Court of Appeals of Minnesota Finds Rape Shield Violation in Clergy Abuse Case

Federal Rule of Evidence 412, the federal Rape Shield Rule,  deems evidence of a victim's sexual predisposition and other sexual behavior inadmissible, subject to the following exceptions in a criminal case:

(1) Criminal Cases. The court may admit the following evidence in a criminal case:  

(A) evidence of specific instances of a victim’s sexual behavior, if offered to prove that someone other than the defendant was the source of semen, injury, or other physical evidence;  

(B) evidence of specific instances of a victim’s sexual behavior with respect to the person accused of the sexual misconduct, if offered by the defendant to prove consent or if offered by the prosecutor; and  

(C) evidence whose exclusion would violate the defendant’s constitutional rights.

As the recent opinion of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota in State v. Wenthe, 2014 WL 1344193 (Minn.App. 2014), makes clear, the exceptions to Minnesota's Rape Shield Rule are a bit different. But how different?

In Wenthe, Christopher Wenthe was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct in violation of Minn.Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(ii), for sexual conduct that occurred while the victim was meeting with the defendant on an ongoing basis for spiritual counsel—"to seek or receive religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private." The Court of Appeals of Minnesota initially reversed Wenthe's conviction, finding that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Supreme Court of Minnesota, however, found no First Amendment violation and remanded so that the Court of Appeals of Minnesota could address Wenthe's evidentiary objection.

In this objection, Wenthe contended that the trial court erred by precluding him from presenting evidence of other sexual behavior by the victim "to show a source of her sexual knowledge and to explain how the relationship [with Wenthe] became sexual." Instead, the court only allowed Wenthe to present evidence that the victim was sexually abused.

The Court of Appeals found that this decision was erroneous because the prosecution opened the door to the admission of "other sexual behavior" evidence through exchanges such as this one with the victim:

Q. Apart from being raped as a child, were you a virgin at that time?  

A. Yes.

According to the court,

Despite the prohibition in the rape-shield laws, evidence of a victim's past sexual conduct may be admissible where it “is constitutionally required by the defendant's right to due process, his right to confront his accusers, or his right to offer evidence in his own defense.”...Appellant contends that his due-process right to present a defense required that he be allowed to introduce evidence concerning his knowledge of A.F.'s sexual history because it informed “his intentions as the relationship progressed.” We review appellant's assertions only in the context of the trial that led to his conviction, where the state opened the door to evidence that A.F. previously had adult sexual relationships. “Opening the door occurs when one party by introducing certain material ... creates in the opponent a right to respond with material that would otherwise have been inadmissible.”...Despite agreeing to limit A.F.'s prior sexual history to the abuse she suffered as a child, the state elicited testimony that A.F. had never before engaged in cunnilingus, that she was a virgin at the time she engaged in sexual conduct with appellant, and that A.F. engaged in anal sex to “protect [her] virginity.” During closing argument, the prosecutor also referred to A.F. as “naïve, vulnerable, inexperienced,” compared to appellant, who had been in adult sexual relationships before he became a priest.

Therefore, the court concluded that "[g]iven these door-opening circumstances, the district court abused its discretion in precluding appellant from introducing evidence of A.F.'s sexual history."

-CM

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2014/04/federal-rule-of-evidence-412-the-federal-rape-shield-rule-deems-evidence-of-a-victims-sexual-predisposition-and-other-sexua.html

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Comments

This is certainly an interesting door opening opinion. I would like to know what other readers think about it.

Posted by: rick underwood | Apr 9, 2014 8:18:12 AM

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