EvidenceProf Blog

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

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Court of Appeals of Maryland Throws Out Sexual Abuse Convictions Based on Failure to Satisfy Corpus Delicti Rule

The Latin term “corpus delicti” translates into the “body of the crime” and refers to “[t]he fact of a transgression; ACTUS REUS.”... The corpus delicti for the crime of sexual abuse of a minor, pursuant to § 3-602 of the Criminal Law Article, is evidence of sexual molestation or exploitation of a minor. The “corpus delicti rule” is a “doctrine that in order to secure a conviction, the prosecution must establish the corpus delicti with corroborating evidence. [] The doctrine prohibits the prosecution from proving the corpus delicti based solely on a defendant’s extrajudicial statements.”

This quote comes from today's opinion by the Court of Appeals of Maryland in Grimm v. State. Because the State failed to satisfy the corpus delicti rule, the Court reversed Grimm's conviction. Do you agree?

In Grimm,

Quentin Anthony Grimm (“the alleged victim” or “Quentin”) moved in with his biological father, John Grimm, and his stepmother, Angela Ann Grimm (“Petitioner”), in 2009 when Quentin was sixteen years old.

Subsequently, "a deputy assigned to a local high school came into possession of an anonymous letter that raised concerns about the relationship between Quentin and Petitioner." As a result,

On February 6, 2013, Detectives Nogle and Jared Barnhart interviewed Petitioner. The session was audio and video recorded. When Detective Nogle showed Petitioner the anonymous letter, she immediately confessed that she did not know the paternity of her two year old son, Logan. Petitioner admitted that she had had a sexual relationship with her stepson, which began shortly after he moved in when he was sixteen years old, and that the relationship ended a couple months prior to the interview. As a result of that relationship, Petitioner stated that she was unsure of the paternity of her two youngest children, but that she suspected Quentin was Logan’s father. Petitioner further confessed that she had sexual intercourse five to ten times with her stepson. The detectives provided Petitioner with several pages of Facebook communications between Quentin and “Faith Evans.” When asked whether Petitioner was Faith Evans, she responded affirmatively.

Based on this confession, the Petitioner was with various sexual misconduct crimes, including sexual abuse of a minor. At trial, however, Quentin testified as follows:

Q. Now, after moving back to Maryland into a residence with the Defendant and other persons did there come a time when you began a relationship, sexual relationship, with Angela Grimm?

A. I don’t remember.

Q. You don’t remember anything?

A. No.

Q. Okay. Well do you remember speaking with Detective Nogle and Detective Barnhart earlier this year?

A. No.

Q. You don’t remember that?

A. No.

Q. Do you remember telling them you thought Logan was your child?

A. No.

Q. Okay. But you remember Logan, right?

A. Yeah.

Q. Who is Logan?

A. My little brother.

Q. Okay. So now he’s your little brother and earlier this year he was possibly your son. Is that what you said?

A. No, I don’t remember saying that.

Q. So, the only answers you’re going to give today is you don’t remember anything about your relationship with Angela Grimm back in 2010, 2009, [and] 2011?

A. Yeah.

Q. Have you ever had sexual intercourse with Angela Grimm?

A. No, I don’t remember.

Q. You said no. Is that – – You never had sexual intercourse with Angela Grimm?

A. I don’t remember.

Q. Mr. Grimm, are you telling us the truth today?

A. Yes.

Q. Um hum. Court’s indulgence. How would you describe your relationship with Angela Grimm?

A. I don’t remember

After the State rested, the defense moved for a judgment of acquittal because "the only evidence of the corpus delicti—sexual act(s) between Petitioner and Quentin—was derived from Petitioner’s confession, and was not corroborated by independent evidence, namely, Quentin’s testimony." The trial court, however, denied the motion, and the Petitioner was convicted.

Today, however, the Court of Appeals of Maryland reversed that conviction, concluding that

the State failed to satisfy the rule of corroboration for extrajudicial confessions. As mentioned above, Quentin’s testimony corroborated two elements of the crime of sexual abuse of a minor, but his responses did not corroborate the major or essential element: sexual abuse. Quentin’s assertion that he could not recall, among other things, whether he had ever had a sexual relationship or intercourse with Petitioner, was not sufficient evidence to corroborate that the alleged act(s) did, in fact, occur. In other words, the alleged victim’s responses did not constitute substantive evidence that Petitioner had sexually abused him. Fatal to the State’s case is the absence of any other independent circumstantial or direct evidence corroborating the “essential” harm to Quentin, i.e., sexual abuse.

Under the corpus delicti rule, this was likely the only outcome that Maryland's highest court could have reached. And, on one level, the ruling makes all the sense in the world. Many wrongful convictions are based upon false confessions, and the corpus delicti rule accordingly requires something in the way of corroboration of a confession.

On the other hand, when you look at the actual facts of the Grimm case, it seems pretty clear that Quentin was not forgetful and instead was testifying in a manner that would protect his stepmother. You could imagine the same thing taking place in a domestic violence case. But how do you avoid these bad outcomes while maintaining the corpus delicti rule in cases in which it looks like there was a false confession?



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Doesn't the trier of fact get some discretion in determining the truthfulness of a witnesses testimony? Just because Quentin's words failed to expressly corroborate Petitioner's sexual abuse doesn't mean that the subtext of his testimony can be excluded from consideration, right? Must a jury take leave of its senses entirely, or can they read between the lines when someone claims not to remember the nature of their relationship with their stepmother? Isn't that particularly so when the witnesses prior statement to the police is introduced as impeachment evidence? If the corpus delecti standard is corroboration then it seems the prior statement and obviously false testimony should be sufficient. Cases shouldn't have to be decided in a vacuum.

Posted by: Eric | May 4, 2016 8:40:03 AM

If he had previously told the police all this information could they introduce that as evidence? Could the prosecution order a paternity test of the child since the witness did not remember?

Posted by: Robert Kirkpatrick | May 4, 2016 9:39:12 AM


Exactly. Why didn't the state engage in paternity testing?!!


Yes, I don't understand that either. There are lots of he-said she said cases. Credibility is for the finder of fact.

I don't understand this ruling in the slightest.

Posted by: Daniel | May 4, 2016 11:44:26 AM

I'll add this.

FWIW I cannot imagine if the sexual roles were reversed that this would have been the holding. This smacks of the persistent sexism we see in the judiciary where it's not a crime if the female does it.

Posted by: Daniel | May 4, 2016 11:46:13 AM

Eric - Forgive me if I'm totally misinterpreting your comment (I'm thinking I might be), but would you be comfortable with a jury trying to interpret "subtext" of testimony or "read between the lines" when deciding on your guilt or innocence? Considering how often juries get it totally wrong when they *do* supposedly stick to the facts as presented, I think we need to insist that they not start free-associating things that might have happened that no one is testifying to.... :-)

Posted by: Eric Wolff | May 4, 2016 4:25:33 PM

Unfortunately Quentin chose to "not remember" on the stand. Therefore no confirmation of sexual abuse. By no means fair but what I think happened cannot be allowed to play into this. If he says I don't remember he is saying it didn't happen...
Its what it is. Very sad and perhaps the DA should have prepared this boy better or not take this case to court if there was any indication he would testify in this manner.
Navy Mom

Posted by: NavyMom | May 5, 2016 7:59:43 AM

First, does this site auto refresh and erase everyone's comments half way through? It is extraordinarily frustrating.

Second, Eric W - I think you may have misinterpreted my comment to some extent. Yes, I would be comfortable with a jury reading between the lines and interpreting the subtext of testimony when deciding my guilt or innocence. That is, in fact, their role. The reason we have live testimony is precisely so the trier of fact can weigh the credibility of testimony and decide who they believe. By ignoring the jury's decision and focusing strictly on the language in the transcript, the Court of Appeals has overstepped its role by usurping the jury's power to make a credibility determination.

Words alone aren't always enough. If I say, "I'm going to blow the roof off this place" it makes a difference if I'm a rock star describing an upcoming performance or a terrorist describing a grade school. The context matters. The Court of Appeals seems to have ignored any and all context in making this ruling.

Remember when Gary Hart got caught sleeping with Donna Rice? The controversy appeared to be on the verge of blowing over when a reporter asked Hart at a press conference if he'd ever committed adultery. Hart stammered, paused and eventually said “I don’t have to answer that question.” From there the feeding frenzy was on in full force and Hart withdrew from the race shortly thereafter. It wasn’t his words that condemned him. It was the stammer and the pause. Seeing it, one knew instantly that he was lying. Had Hart been in court at the time, the jury has the right to see the way he answered the question and to draw the correct inference from it.

Here, Quentin claims he doesn’t recall the nature of his relationship with his stepmother. Even on paper that seems like a lie, but I bet it seemed even worse in person. Setting aside the prior contradictory statement which, in and of itself, should be corroborating evidence sufficient to satisfy the corpus delicti rule, the jury made a factual determination that Quentin was lying. They were there. They saw the testimony. The Court of Appeals’ reliance on the plain wording of the transcript is misplaced. That testimony didn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s nonsensical, contradicts a prior statement and was made to a jury that didn’t believe it. The Court of Appeals has undermined the very purpose of live testimony and the constitutional right to confront one’s accuser by this ruling.

Posted by: Eric | May 5, 2016 10:01:34 AM

Eric - it's one thing for a jury to believe that a witness is lying. It's quite another for a jury to substitute their own version of events that have not been testified to in court.

Posted by: Eric Wolff | May 6, 2016 3:55:56 AM

Just as I started to write this the page refreshed it is frustrating! I thought about the paternity test as well but don't know if the court has the authority to order one without the parents permission, although I wonder if the husband/father would give permission. Such a sad case those kids will be screwed up now due to step mothers appalling behavior.

Posted by: Cathy my real name | May 6, 2016 4:15:43 PM

@Daniel --

"I'll add this.

FWIW I cannot imagine if the sexual roles were reversed that this would have been the holding. This smacks of the persistent sexism we see in the judiciary where it's not a crime if the female does it."

Unless she's reporting rape.


Posted by: pluscachange | May 6, 2016 6:03:41 PM

I'm a bit confused as to how the anonymous letter isn't being classed as corroborative. Or the Facebook messages? By the sound of it they suggested (and therefore corroborated) an inappropriate relationship? Why no paternity test in this case? I think this rule should be changed in cases where there is a real power indifference, such as child victims or domestic abuse victims who are inclined to protect the perpetrators, whether through fear or misplaced guilt, or whatever.

Posted by: Cupcake | May 9, 2016 10:13:40 AM

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