–by Darian Niforatos
Citations: People v. Brewer, 2016 N.Y. LEXIS 3495 (2016); People v. Molineux, 61 N.E. 286 (N.Y. 1901).
Abstract: The issue surrounding this case was whether the trial court erred in allowing the People to submit evidence of the distinctive manner in which the defendant engaged in sexual acts with consenting adults. The evidence was admitted because it confirmed the testimony of two minor victims since it was highly relevant, and its probative value was not outweighed by the potential for prejudice.
The two victims in this case were sisters, aged nine and seven. They lived with their mother, along with the defendant and other adults in a house that was used for selling drugs and engaging in sexual activities. The defendant sexually abused the sisters in an unusual manner. The defendant would take them into a back closet and have them perform oral sex while he smoked crack with his shirt pulled over his head. The girls ran to their mother right after the incident to report what had happened. After learning of this, the mother immediately packed up everything and left the house.
The evidence the People sought to introduce was the testimony of the mother and other women who had experienced performing oral sex on the defendant in the same manner the two sisters described: in a closet with his shirt pulled over his head while he smoked crack.
The defense argued the drug use and the sexual acts were “clearly prejudicial and not probative enough for the court to exercise its discretion and allow that testimony.” The People argued it demonstrated a pattern of behavior. The trial court ruled in favor of the People on the condition the mother provide names, dates, and proof she had personally observed the other women performing sexual acts on the defendant.
The Appellate Division and this Court analyzed People v. Molineux, which limits the introduction of prior uncharged crimes or prior bad acts that show the defendant’s propensity towards crime. The Court concluded the evidence of the defendant’s drug use was an uncharged crime, and it was properly admitted as Molineux evidence because it was not used for propensity purposes, but rather to corroborate the details of the victims’ testimony. However, the sexual acts with consenting adults were not prior uncharged crimes and could not be considered Molineux evidence. Nevertheless, the Court stated that even though the trial court classified it as Molineux evidence, it did not change the arguments brought forth and the trial court did not abuse its discretion.
Molineux and “propensity” evidence is only limited for policy purposes. The fear is that the jury may be more likely to find the accused person guilty when it is known or suspected that he or she previously committed a similar crime. To determine if the evidence should be admitted, the following factors must be considered: relevance, probative value to the People’s case, and potential prejudice to the defendant.
The court found the evidence was relevant and probative in that it matched the defendant’s unique sexual habits the minor victims described, especially since neither victim had ever witnessed the defendant engaged in such sexual acts with their mother or other consenting adults. While almost all relevant, probative evidence will be somewhat prejudicial, it will not be automatically outweighed by prejudice simply because the evidence is compelling. It is inevitable that there will be an intended and negative impact that flows from the evidence admitted. Nevertheless, courts enjoy broad discretion in deciding whether to admit evidence, and the court will intervene when the trial court has either abused its discretion or exercised none at all.
In this case, even though the sexual encounters with the other adult women and the drug use were prejudicial to the defendant in that it strengthened the People’s case, considering the full extent of the evidence the court did not find the trial court abused its discretion in admitting the particular evidence.