Does it violate the Confrontation Clause to exclude evidence that the complaining witness was a prostitute when the defendant's theory of his case is that the prostitute falsely accused him of rape for not paying her full asking price? The Connecticut Supreme Court said "Yes," in State v. DeJesus. (Note: All citations below refer to the page of the .pdf file. Also, all internal quotation marks and citations have been omitted).
Tina C. was acquainted with Luis DeJesus. Ms. C. would often perform odd-jobs for him. She would come over to his house for social visits. And they had sex at least once.
One early morning Ms. C. asked DeJesus if he had any work for her. DeJesus invited Ms. C. up so that he could call some friends to solicit work for Ms. C. What happened next is in dispute.
She said: DeJesus asked me to have sex with him. I told him no and tried to leave. He grabbed my arms, pinned me to the ground, and raped me. Once he was finished, he threw $30 down at my feet, as if I were a whore. I took the money but only because I did not want to fight with DeJesus anymore.
He said: Ms. C. is a prostitute. She came over my house that morning to offer me her services for her usual rate of $50. I agreed to pay her. After we had sex, I only paid her $30. She was unhappy but left with the money.
At trial, the jury was never allowed to hear DeJesus’s side of the story. The trial court found that the rape shield law prevented the admission of any evidence concerning Ms. C’s sexual history. The defense was not allowed to confront Ms. C. about her job as a prostitute. In a 5-0 opinion, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed.
Wrote the Court:
The primary interest secured by confrontation is the right to cross-examination . As an appropriate and potentially vital function of cross-examination, exposure of a witness’ motive, interest, bias or prejudice may not be unduly restricted. Compliance with the constitutionally guaranteed right to cross-examination requires that the defendant be allowed to present the jury with facts from which it could appropriately draw inferences relating to the witness’ reliability. [P]reclusion of sufficient inquiry into a particular matter tending to show motive, bias and interest may result in a violation of the constitutional requirements of the sixth amendment. Further, the exclusion of defense evidence may deprive the defendant of his constitutional right to present a defense.Slip opinion at 6-7 (quotations and citations omitted - here and in the citations below).
However, the Court wrote: "The defendant’s right to confront witnesses against him is not absolute, but must bow to other legitimate interests in the criminal trial process." Id. at 7. One such "legitimate interest" is to prevent complaining witnesses' in rape trials from having irrelevant aspects of their sex lives revealed in a public forum. However, the exclusion of evidence under rape shield laws is also not absolute.
Evidence of prior sexual conduct is admissible in a rape trial when "the proffered evidence so relevant and material to a critical issue in the case that excluding it would violate the defendant’s constitutional rights." Id. Here, whether Ms. C. was a prostitute was both relevant and material.
Evidence of Ms. C.’s prior prostitution is relevant because it would help the jury determine whether she had a bias or motive for falsely accusing DeJesus. For example, a jury could rationally conclude that Ms. C.’s reason for crying rape had nothing to do with his overpowering her will: Instead, she wanted to get even with him for shorting her $20. The evidence is material because, if true, it would provide DeJesus with a defense. Indeed, that Ms. C. was a prostitute would be his only defense. The Court wrote:
Id. at 9.
In the present case, as in Demers, the excluded evidence of the victim’s prior prostitution deprived the jury of the necessary contextual framework to evaluate properly the defendant’s version of events. Without such evidence, the jury was left to speculate as to why the defendant provided, and the victim accepted, the money that both agreed had been exchanged. Because the jury could have inferred, from the evidence presented,that the victim needed money from the fact that she had gone to the defendant’s residence looking for work, it reasonably could have concluded that she accepted the money when it was offered because she needed money. Had the jury been allowed to consider the excluded evidence, however, it reasonably could have concluded, contrary to this explanation for why she accepted the money, that the victim accepted the money because she had performed an act of prostitution for which she expected payment. The evidence, therefore, was relevant to establish the victim’s consent to the sexual intercourse, rather than her general unchaste character as prohibited by the rape shield statute.
Also, without evidence of the victim’s prior history of prostitution, the jury heard no evidence to explain why she would have had a reason to fabricate a sexual assault allegation against the defendant. [A]ny limitation on the impeachment of a key government witness is subject to the most rigorous appellate review. If the jury had been allowed to consider the excluded evidence, it reasonably could have found, contrary to the implication that she simply needed money, that the victim demanded a fee for her services as she had done in the past.
Moreover, the Court took umbrage at the proscutor’s misconduct. In his closing argument, the prosecutor said:
‘‘What reason is there for [the victim] to give false information about what happened that morning?’’ Id. at 10. Indeed, there was a very good reason for the complaining witness to lie. However, the prosecutor willfully kept this reason from the jury.