Tuesday, February 11, 2003
California Supreme Court Upholds Instruction on Sex-Crimes Evidence
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A standard jury instruction on use of other sex crimes as proof of a disposition to commit similar offenses, as revised in 1999, correctly stated the law and did not deprive a defendant of a fair trial, the state Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
The high court unanimously affirmed Rodney Damon Reliford’s Los Angeles Superior Court conviction on charges of forcible rape and sexual penetration by a foreign object. He was sentenced to 37 years in prison as a second-strike offender.
Justice Marvin Baxter wrote the opinion of the court, which was joined by all of the justices except Joyce L. Kennard. Kennard, writing separately, said that CALJIC No. 2.50.01, as given at Reliford’s trial, was “ambiguous and confusing” but not prejudicial.
Reliford was charged following a 1996 incident in which M.S., as she was identified by the court, said he forced her into his car and raped her after she was unable to force him off.
M.S. testified that she and Reliford had a brief relationship five years earlier, but that she had moved out of town for a couple of years and then had run into Reliford occasionally after her return but had not expressed any interest in resuming the relationship. The defense contended the incident, which M.S. reported to police from the hospital where she was treated for scratches and bruises on her arms and legs, was consensual.
Prosecutors also presented evidence that Reliford had been convicted of assault with intent to commit rape.
That conviction arose from a 1991 incident in which the victim testified she accepted the defendant’s offer of a ride to a restaurant where she was supposed to meet friends after an evening of dancing, then accompanied him into an apartment complex where he was allegedly going to pick up some money. Reliford, according to the testimony, forced her into a dirty apartment with obscenities spray-painted on the walls and tried to force her into sex.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michelle Rosenblatt admitted that testimony at Reliford’s trial for the rape of M.S. and instructed the jurors, in accordance with CALJIC No. 2.50.01 as it read at the time, that if they found by a preponderance of the evidence that Reliford had committed a sexual assault in the 1991 incident they “may, but are not required to, infer that the defendant had a disposition to commit the same or similar type sexual offenses.”
Jurors were also told that if they found Reliford had such a disposition they could, “but are not required to, infer that he was likely to commit and did commit the crime of which he is accused,” but that the commission of a prior sex crime “is not sufficient by itself to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he committed the charged crime.”
On appeal, the defense argued that the instruction should not have been given. The Court of Appeal agreed but affirmed the conviction on the basis of harmless error, leading both sides to ask the Supreme Court for review.
Baxter, writing for the high court, rejected the defense contentions that the instruction was likely to mislead jurors into considering the other-crimes evidence for an improper purpose or into failing to hold the prosecution to its burden of proof.
The instruction, Baxter said, correctly set forth the state of the law under Evidence Code Sec. 1108, which permits evidence of uncharged sex crimes to be introduced to show a disposition to commit such crimes. In People v. Falsetta (1999) 21 Cal.4th 903, the court upheld the constitutionality of the law and suggested, without deciding, that the 1999 instruction “adequately sets forth the controlling principles under section 1108.”
That suggestion was correct, Baxter said yesterday.
“[T]he instruction nowhere tells the jury it may rest a conviction solely on evidence of prior offenses,” the justice wrote. Nor could any juror, after being given CALIC No.2.50.01 plus standard instructions on the elements of the charged crimes and the required proof of intent, “reasonably interpret the instructions to authorize conviction of a charged offense based solely on proof of an uncharged sexual offense,” he said.
The claim that a juror might understand the instruction as permitting a conviction without the prosecution meeting its burden of proof fails, Baxter said, where jurors are given the standard instructions on reasonable doubt.
The justice rejected the argument that because it allowed jurors to apply a preponderance standard to determine whether the defendant committed the uncharged offense, the instruction was “too complicated” to apply. Other instructions, such as those on the necessity defense, entrapment, the statute of limitations, admissibility of co-conspirator’s statements, and lawful possession of a controlled substance also tell jurors to apply a different standard of proof in determining whether a predicate fact has been established, Baxter pointed out.
He also noted that the instruction was revised last year to explain that an inference drawn from other-crimes evidence “is simply one item for you to consider,” calling the revised instruction “an improvement” while cautioning that that the court was not “passing on issues not before us.”
The case is People v. Reliford, 03 S.O.S. 781.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company