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Court Discusses Sex Crimes and the Corroboration of Young Victim’s Testimony


The statutory provision requiring corroboration of the victim’s testimony in certain sex crimes involving underage victims was repealed in 1984. In this case that went before the Court of Appeals of New York on December 22 1988, Judge Titone stated that the Ex Post Facto Clause of the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit the repealing enactment to prosecutions for sex crimes that occurred before the date that the law became effective. Before this law was enacted, there was no way to apply the new statute and convict a defendant only on the basis of the victims’ testimony, even if the alleged crimes occurred before the legislation became effective. It was argued that the defendant’s convictions must be reversed because of two prejudicial trial errors that tainted the fairness of his trial.

The defendant, a remedial math teacher, had been investigated for a sex crime involving his young male students who were under the age of 11. Eight of the teacher’s students came forward within a three-week period and said that the teacher had fondled their genitals. The teacher was indicted on 23 counts of first degree sexual abuse and 9 counts of endangering the welfare of a child. Seven of the sex crime counts were dismissed. There were 25 counts remaining, and 19 of these happened between September 1983 and November 1984. Six of the incidents happened between November 1984 and December 1985.

Before the trial began, the defense attorney filed a motion to dismiss the 19 counts that occurred before November 1984 on the grounds that they were not supported by enough evidence from the Grand Jury. The motion was based on the new statute that repealed the corroboration rules that would have governed the trial on those counts.

At the trial on June 17, 1986, eight of the boys who had been interviewed by the police testified. Another boy who had approached the teacher’s desk and saw him with his hand down Matthew L.’s pants also testified. In this sex crime, all of the boys testified that the math teacher fondled the boys’ as he helped them with a math problem. The defense attempted to prove that Matthew told a lie that had quickly spread through the school and had inspired other boys to tell similar stories. The defense had not been allowed to cross-examine the officers who interviewed the boys.

In the meantime, another boy who was a former student of the teacher who had moved away was brought to court to testify against the teacher. He said that he had been fondled by the defendant while he was supposed to be receiving help at the teacher’s desk. This boy had reported it to his grandmother who reported it to his mother. A letter was sent to the school psychologist requesting that the touching be stopped. Although this was an uncharged crime, the court allowed it as being admissible because it rebutted the defense’s theory that the accusations against the teacher were a rumor or conspiracy.

The defendant was found guilty by a jury in all of the charges against him in this sex crime. The Appellate Division agreed with the judgment of conviction. It was determined that the current law did not require corroboration of the boys’ testimonies.

The issue in this case is that at the time that the sex crimes were allegedly committed, Penal Law 130.16 stated that a person should not be convicted based only on the testimony of the alleged victim when it is not supported by other evidence. As of November 1, 1984, corroboration was no longer required when a child was incapable of giving consent due to his age. However, the defendant was convicted solely on the testimony of the children, and the incidents occurred before the time that the amended law became effective. For this reason, he should not have been convicted on this basis alone.

The defense in this case argued that there were trial errors that were made that negate the findings in this case. One of these was the testimony of the student, Domenick M., the former student who testified that he too had been fondled one year before. The defense’s other objection is to the fact that the police officers who interviewed the boys were not allowed to testify in the case. Defense therefore had no opportunity to prove that their interviews were prejudiced and leading the boys toward the statements that they made.

The Court found that the testimony of Domenick M. should not have been allowed. A defendant’s previous immoral conduct is not admissible in court. The fact that the math teacher acted immorally toward this boy does not prove that he did the same thing to the other boys. This is a propensity argument that should have been excluded. In addition, Domenick M.’s testimony was highly prejudicial and most likely influenced the jury to believe that if the teacher did it once, he would do it again. This line of thinking is prohibited by the Molineux rule, so the boy’s testimony should not have been allowed.

Concerning the testimony of the police officers, the defense should have been allowed to examine the two investigating officers about their interviews at the trial. It was determined that the defendant has little chance to explore the matter when the cross-examination of the child witnesses took place and the fact that some of the children changed their stories was not taken into account. This could have been cleared up to some extent if the officers had been cross-examined by the defense. In addition, the fact that the officers may have been suggestive when questioning the boys was unknown because of the denial to cross-examine. Because the other boy’s testimony was allowed and the police officers cross-examination was denied, the trial was skewed towards the People’s favor.

The conclusion of this case was that the Ex Post Facto Clause of the US Constitution does not require that a defendant be tried under the corroboration rules that were the law at the time of the alleged sex crimes. Because of the errors made at the trial, the court ruled that the verdicts could not be permitted to stand, and a new trial was ordered. While Justice Alexander concurred with the majority decision to reverse the defendant’s convictions, he disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the conviction was not obtained in violation of the Ex Post Facto Clause. Furthermore, he stated that the retroactive application of the amended statutes deprived the defendant from a fair trial.

Chief Justice Wachtler, on the other hand, voted to affirm that there was no error in the trial and that there was therefore no need for a new trial. He said that the original trial court did a good job at protecting the defendant’s rights while allowing leeway to the People, considering the young age of the boys who testified.

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