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"The Sins of Ralph Reed"

A Disappointing Win

The Connecticut Supreme Court yesterday ordered a new trial for a client of mine, Douglas Sawyer. The trial court erred in admitting evidence of prior misconduct in his sexual assault case, and the Appellate Court erred in upholding the trial court. I should be ecstatic. I argued his case, with the support of superb amicus briefs by the state's Public Defenders and criminal defense bar.

So why am I glum?

The case presented the court with an invitation to abandon a rule of law that relaxes the standard for admissibility of prior misconduct in sexual assault cases. In other words, Connecticut sanctions boutique rules of evidence. Prior misconduct that might not be admissible to prove murder is admissible to prove rape. Huh?

What is the relaxed standard? No one really knows.

State v. Sawyer  did create some new law, however. The court finally cleared up ambiguities about the harmless error standard on appeal. The new standard: "whether the jury's verdict was substantially swayed by the error." In other words, you don't have to prove that the result would be different.

The court also held that common scheme evidence could not be used to prove identity.

Yesterday was a thrill. I got to call a prison and tell a man doing time that the time had come to an end. Sure, he may face a new trial. But he regained the presumption of innocence. Who knows if the state will try him again.

But the thrill was short-lived. After reading the Supreme Court's three separate opinions on the case again and again, I concluded that the justices missed an opportunity to make needed changes in the law. It simply makes no sense to have different evidentiary standards for different crimes. See State v. Sawyer

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